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Keith Lund discusses Fufeng project, workforce issues for this week's 5 Questions

The Grand Forks Herald sat down with EDC President & CEO Keith Lund for 5 Questions this week to discuss its progress in 2021, the Fufeng project and more.

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Keith Lund, of Grand Forks. (Submitted photo)
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GRAND FORKS — The Grand Forks Herald sat down with EDC President & CEO Keith Lund for 5 Questions this week to discuss its progress in 2021, the Fufeng project and more.

Q: The EDC is coming off of a very big year last year in terms of economic development efforts. What will be the biggest challenge moving forward?

A: It has been a big year, 2021. I guess the two biggest accomplishments that we're known for (in) 2021 is the Career Impact Academy and Fufeng USA. Those projects aren't done, and we’ll continue to be working over the next year to make sure they're successful. At the highest level, the (thing) that I think the community needs to work on is workforce. I think that's no secret. If you talk to any company in the region, workforce is the number one challenge. I think our collective responsibility is to make sure that all the different programming that's been put in place is working at its highest efficiency and collaborating with one another to make a positive impact, and those programs help to retain students (in) high school (and) college, and then ultimately try to attract newcomers to our region. A little less tangible I think, and this is a broader community and even regional responsibility, is to make sure we maintain the momentum. I think there's been a lot of progress over many, many years of collaboration between civic and public organizations, and even the business community, and to make sure we maintain those strong relationships when we have opportunities or challenges that we can quickly come together and seize those opportunities. So, (it’s) just continuing to preserve really strong relationships so we can continue the strength and the momentum in the future.

Q: The proposed Fufeng plant is among the most significant efforts put forth by the EDC. What are you working on that could make this year as prominent as the last?

A: I mentioned the Fufeng USA project is the largest project that we've secured. We're working to ensure that it can develop, and the Career Impact Academy, as well. We've had some discussions and a little tongue in cheek conversation about how 2021 was the year of the press release, and 2022 is the year of execution. So we need to make sure that those are successful. Just looking forward, too, we have a number of projects in the pipeline, and two of them together would be more than the Fufeng opportunity, in terms of the total investment. So, we have over 40 projects that we're looking at, and there's no way that all of those are going to come to fruition. But I'd say the pipeline is rather robust, and we have a number of opportunities in front of us. So we (must) to continue to do our good work, and to make sure that we land a fair percentage of those to keep the momentum going.

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Q: Key member Brandon Baumbach, director of business development, took a role with the Grand Forks school district. How does his departure impact the work of the EDC?

A: Brandon did a great job. He's going to be missed by the organization. He did a lot to benefit us, in terms of the relationship we had with businesses and even community members. He's helped the EDC become a better organization, so we owe him an awful lot. At the end of the day, though, the show must go on, right? So we have an advertisement out for his replacement that will be closed at the end of next week. We've had some conversations already with some interesting people that we think might do a good job, and we're looking forward to that. Depending on the experience that they bring to the job, (I’m) not sure how quickly they’ll be completely effective in their role, but we have every expectation we’ll find a quality candidate and will be successful moving forward.

Q: When the Fufeng plant was announced last year in November, it generated a significant amount of controversy. Do you have any regrets about how the situation unfolded?

A: I guess the one regret I have, and I don't know what control I had over it, but I wish we would have been in a position to announce and discuss the project publicly earlier. There were a couple of constraints about that; two primary constraints on the company and one from the community. So the company is in a competitive environment, and they certainly don't want to disclose what their plans are to their competitors, so in many cases, from an economic development standpoint, projects will not be announced until the company is ready to announce them and they're ready to execute. Also, I'm not sure everyone appreciates the fact that they are a publicly traded company, and the things that they can say before the board has made certain approvals. There's some restrictions on that, so we can certainly appreciate that. And then from the community standpoint, I'd say the city and the EDC — we were in a competitive environment, too. We understand that 50 communities put in a proposal for this, and there was some type of investigation of 25 sites. We got involved, and we were one of four candidates. The last thing that we wanted to do was to highlight the fact that we were a candidate to any of those three communities or highlight what our proposal was. We didn't want them taking advantage of that knowledge and making a more competitive proposal. So at the end of the day, I wish we could have had some earlier conversations, but we were handcuffed a little bit by the environment we were in.

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Q: What do you think is the greatest misconception about the Fufung project? How would you address it?

A: There's a couple of things. There are some simple ones, like do we have enough water? And I think that's very much been answered very well, and we do. I will say, though, that I think the biggest misconception and even disappointment is that there are a number of people that think the Economic Development Corporation and the city council don't care about the community as much as they do. There's a suggestion that leadership in the community doesn’t care about the environment, and we don't care what the traffic is going to be or what the odor might potentially be. I will say that I've never seen a project go through this level of due diligence that I've seen with the city of Grand Forks. The city leaders, they're trying to balance growth and the things that the community needs along with doing their proper due diligence. I also think, you know, there's a big narrative about foreign ownership and what that might mean from a national security standpoint. I think everyone you would talk to on the city council, and EDC board and other community leaders — we love the base, and we support the base and the last thing that we would want to do is do anything that would jeopardize it. So, again, back to that extensive due diligence and talking to individuals that have a responsibility to know things. The mayor and his office have done a very good job in terms of due diligence, and I feel that that's been done well. So that's a misconception that I think is extremely unfortunate.

Jacob Holley joined the Grand Forks Herald as its business reporter in June 2021.

Holley's beat at the Grand Forks Herald is broad and includes a variety of topics, including small business, national trends and more.

Readers can reach Holley at jholley@gfherald.com.Follow him on Twitter @JakeHolleyMedia.
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