The Grand Forks metro area was ranked 223 out of 379 in a study, which city leaders say shows Grand Forks is tackling the right issues.
Ross DeVol, lead researcher in the study by philanthropic organization, the Walton Family Foundation, said the purpose of the study was to determine what areas of the country experienced the most economic growth from 2013 to 2018. The ranking Grand Forks received was average.
“I would say it’s an ‘eh’ ranking,” DeVol said.
The study looked at gross domestic product growth, income growth and job growth. It also looked at what share of jobs a young firm had in the area. DeVol said the number of jobs at a young firm are a good indicator of future job growth.
“Grand Forks is not creating very many new companies,” DeVol said. “And very few of them are scaling up.”
DeVol said the study showed Grand Forks hasn’t grown as fast as other areas because of its smaller share of young firms, declines in agriculture and lack of job creation.
Todd Feland, Grand Forks city administrator, said Grand Forks' rank of 223 was close to how Bismarck and Fargo performed in the study, which he found to be positive. Grand Forks ranked 89 for income per capita and average pay growth from 2013 to 2017 was ranked 23rd.
Bismarck ranked 212 overall and Fargo ranked 166.
Feland said the city has been working to encourage entrepreneurship in recent years with programs such as the Startup Grand Forks grants and the 701 Coworking Space by Evolve Grand Forks.
But Feland said initiatives, such as the Chamber of Commerce’s Market Capture Committee which aims to attract new businesses and people to Grand Forks, address issues the study brings up.
“This study tells me what we’re doing with that is right,” Feland said. “We’re on the right track.”
Brandon Baumbach, the business development manager for the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp., said the study also affirmed for him that Grand Forks is working on relevant issues.
Grand Forks has an agricultural base, which has been affected by low commodity prices and more recently by Chinese tariffs against agricultural products exported from the U.S., DeVol said.
However, value-added agriculture projects in the area are expected to offset the decline in commodity prices, according to Feland.
One such advancement is the Red River Biorefinery, which will be completed this year. The plant will use waste from sugar beet production and potato production at J.R. Simplot to create ethanol. J.R. Simplot also will be adding a high bay freezer, making it a logistic hub for the company.
The three major employers in town -- UND, Altru and the Grand Forks Air Force Base-- didn’t grow much in the five-year period the study addressed.
“There’s also not a lot of smaller firm growth to offset that,” DeVol said.
Grand Forks has seen an economic slowdown in recent years and it is reflected in the ranking, Feland said.
Looking at the data from 2013 to current day, Feland said the Grand Forks metro area scored well, but the economic slowdown in 2016 and 2017 bring down the town’s overall score.
“We have seen a retail decline and a loss of jobs in retail. Sales tax flattened out over that time period,” Feland said. “UND also had budget cuts during that time period.”
The Grand Forks Air Force Base downsized 10 years ago and the community is still feeling the effects of it, Baumbach said. The base now has a new mission, something that will spur growth, both Feland and Baumbach said.
“We’ve got the right strategy, and we’ll continue to climb the ranks in future,” Baumbach said.
Feland, noting Altru’s new $305 million hospital and expansions in the Grand Sky Business Park, said Grand Forks has a bright future.
“We did take a few hits, but things look good for the future,” Feland said.