To North Dakota Commerce Commissioner James Leiman, the Herald building in downtown Grand Forks – and local plans to turn it into a tech accelerator – reflect a “microcosm of our state.”
Leiman visited Grand Forks this week to meet with local business leaders, after which he stopped by the Herald building to take a tour and discuss its future.
“I see opportunity. I see the state of North Dakota in this building,” Leiman said during a meeting with the Herald's editorial board. “How so? (The building has) a lot of wide-open spaces that can be filled with high-tech entrepreneurial growth that will support the ag industry, that will support the energy industry, that will support community growth, that will support new workforce opportunities.”
Now in his third month at the helm of the department, Leiman envisions the Department of Commerce teaming up with cities, and entities like chambers of commerce and economic development corporations, to provide support for companies at all stages of development. The Department of Commerce, he said, can act as a facilitator of growth not only for business development, but workforce and community development as well.
“We're positioned, in my opinion, to be that agent on behalf of all companies in North Dakota that would like our assistance,” Leiman said.
The Department of Commerce, Leiman said, functions as a concierge to businesses from the startup stage onward, by providing access to capital through programs like the Innovation Technology Loan Fund, formerly called the Research ND program. One beneficiary of the program, drone software company Airtonomy, received a $1 million loan from the program, and is now an expanding, revenue-generating business. The company recently moved to acquire more second-floor space in the Herald building.
“As you can see (Airtonomy) has grown quite a bit, and they're supporting companies across the state, whether it's the energy sector, whether it's agriculture,” Leiman said. “What you're seeing is computational sciences at work (and) well-paying jobs.”
But as companies grow beyond the seed stage, capital needs become larger. Through Commerce’s concierge model, Leiman said his department can help businesses navigate the complexities of a recently authorized state program to invest a portion of the state's Legacy Fund back into businesses and communities. That assistance also extends to helping introduce mature companies to private equity investors throughout the state and nation.
Locally, city plans for the Herald building call for it to be redeveloped to contain office space for technology startups, and eventually offer mentorship programs for those businesses. The city purchased the building, which is across the street from City Hall, in 2019. The newspaper now rents space in the building for its staff.
In April, the city was awarded a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Agency to make the modifications to the building. The cost of the project is around $3 million, and the grant must be matched by an equal amount of local funds. The city retired its legacy EDA loan fund in March, to match the grant.
The building is set to function like a magnet for new tech companies that need help getting off the ground. The idea is to attract them, whether they are locally grown or willing to relocate, foster them for a period of time, then let them take up private office space in the community when they become self-sustaining.
Along with Airtonomy, tech startups Hubedge, First i and KSI Data Sciences, which is a partner company to First i, have signed leases in the Herald building. These companies represent Gov. Doug Burgum’s push to diversify the state’s economy through his Main Street Initiative, which emphasizes a 21st century workforce, smart infrastructure and vibrant communities. Echoing that initiative, Leiman said the need to diversify is clear, and that North Dakota is too reliant on “oil and soil.”
Other communities, he said, are pursuing similar endeavors in entrepreneurship, but Grand Forks’ tech accelerator is different in that business incubation and acceleration activities will take place under one roof.
“This is kind of unique in that you can step up as you grow your company, and then eventually cycle out,” he said.