Greater Grand Forks retail study to be released March 19

Shoppers walk into the Columbia Mall Tuesday, Jan. 28, in Grand Forks. Representatives of GK Development met with Grand Forks civic and business leaders recently to discuss redevelopment of the mall. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald

Grand Forks is inching closer to a date that’s been on its calendar for months: the day community economic leaders finally reveal their $90,000 plan to use cell phone data to retool the trajectory of the local economy, which has been wracked in recent years by deep retail sector losses.

Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the local chamber of commerce, said the data – and what it portends – will be revealed March 19 in an afternoon press conference at the chamber’s downtown offices.

Anyone wanting to know more will have to wait until then, he said.

"I'm going to wait until I get my messaging down,” Wilfhart said, remaining adamantly tight-lipped during an interview this week. “I'm just going to wait until (March) 19th, because I want to frame it up in the right context."

The data in question is part of a $50,000 purchase made jointly from Buxton, a Texas-based analytics firm, and is expected to include a swath of cell phone data that will help local leaders plot out visitors’ consumer behavior. That’s increasingly important as the advent of online shopping routs local retail, appearing to play a role in the closure of numerous Grand Forks stores.


Beyond the $50,000 data purchase, the chamber also expects about $40,000 in local analysis costs. The lion’s share of funding comes from the city of Grand Forks, which gave $50,000, with the local economic development corporation, the East Grand Force Economic Development Authority, the chamber, and the local convention and visitor’s bureau all giving $10,000 to support the project.

On March 19, Wilfahrt said he and colleagues expect to reveal a tool that will allow the public to research the data, likely alongside “high-level observations and recommendations” for the community. Because of Wilfahrt’s reluctance to share more, it’s still not clear exactly what that will look like, though there are some clues.

The data itself is expected to be dated, though it’s not yet clear by how much. Wilfahrt said last June that he had no concerns about the data’s age.

In an interview about the data’s release this week, City Administrator Todd Feland spoke broadly about the possible need for an “experiential economy investment” in the community – like a zoo or a museum or different kinds of retail – that could help drive visitor traffic. But, he said, the data should also be a useful tool for existing businesses to help hone their hunt for customers.

“That data is really customized to Grand Forks and our region,” Feland said. “I think it'll be very helpful for that. I think it'll be helpful first off, to those that are already in our marketplace, and how can we help leverage their business … and how can we start more businesses."

The epicenter of the retail shock that’s hit Grand Forks in recent years has been at Columbia Mall. The Chicago-based owners of the mall recently visited with city leaders about the mall’s path forward. Feland described the meeting as a chance to talk about city strategy and policies, but the mall also is expected to be a potential benefactor of the insights derived from the Buxton data.

“(The data) gives you some intelligence about who's coming and going out of Grand Forks, what their makeup is, what things they may like,” Feland said. “It kind of gives you some business and intelligence from that perspective."


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