UND could be moving some operations into the Grand Forks Herald building, potentially holding classes or events and offering students study spaces downtown.
The university is one of several entities in town considering space in the Herald building, but the architect behind the plan says it all hinges on the city voting to move into the space. The Herald would also continue leasing its existing space in the building.
"We have reviewed their proposals. I don't know that it was necessarily space as it is ... usage of the space," UND President Mark Kennedy recently told the Herald. "For example, a number of our students live downtown and our library has access to a wider range of academic journals that they may need to get to in the middle of the night or weekend. If there was some functionality of the public library that we could sort of work with in tandem, with portals that reach into our library, that would make it more convenient for our students downtown."
Kennedy also said the Herald building's meeting space is a potential advantage for UND-related events, especially as the university and city work toward a stronger relationship.
The overall plans for the building continue to take shape. As currently proposed, the first floor would include space for the city's planning department and the Metropolitan Planning Organization; an e-library, which would basically function as a downtown branch of the Grand Forks Library and be connected to UND's library; smaller gathering spaces or "breakout rooms" for UND students and the public; the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. (EDC), which already leases space on the first floor; and an executive board room that would be available to tenants of the building and other organizations.
As proposed, the Herald and the Student Transitional Education Program (STEP) from the Grand Forks Public Schools would be on the second floor of the building. The STEP program has grown in recent years and Grand Forks Public Schools has been looking for a larger space to rent, said spokeswoman Tracy Jentz.
For this plan to come to fruition, the City Council needs to vote on whether or not to move the planning department across the street, Kuntz said.
"Frankly, if the city says no it would be a disaster," Kuntz said.
Kuntz said UND has discussed moving into the space only if the city signs a lease. UND has not come to a decision yet and has not set a date for when the university expects to discuss moving into the Herald building.
"We see opportunities and we're looking forward to continuing discussion, but there is no commitment at this time," said Meloney Linder, the vice president for marketing and communications at UND.
The Herald building, at 375 2nd Ave. N, is currently owned by Forum Communications Co. and the family of Bill Marcil Sr. and Bill Marcil Jr.
If the city agrees to sign a lease for the Herald building, then Kuntz, founder of Community Contractors Inc., Craig Tweten and the Marcils would enter into an ownership group where each owns the building. The partnership of the three groups of investors will be called the Herald Communications Center.
"With the city's commitment to partner in the collaboration center and rent the first floor, Forum Communications is willing to keep its landmark presence with the Grand Forks Herald in downtown Grand Forks," Kuntz said.
If the city decides against moving into the building, this purchase agreement would fall through.
City Council members are expected to discuss the lease Monday, Jan. 7, during the council's next scheduled meeting.
City Administrator Todd Feland said all three parties that are potentially moving into the first floor of the building seem positive about the plan and trying to figure out details.
"The sense I'm getting from the council is that they're interested enough to kind of go to the final steps of looking at what this would mean," Feland said. "So it's all kind of leading to us making a decision in January or the first quarter of the year."
Feland said there is some pressure on the city, as the city is seen as the "lead partner" in this project.
"The project leads see the city as the lead in putting all these partnerships together," Feland said. "We are interested enough to see how this could work. We're trying to find a way to yes."
Kuntz said the Grand Forks Public Library is fully on board with the plan.
President of the Library Board, Justin Berry, said the board is continuing to research what it would mean to be a part of this collaboration, but no decisions have been made.
Current tenant of the Herald building and EDC President Keith Lund said he is very excited about the potential plans for the building.
"I think injecting more people and more life into the building is a very good thing," Lund said.
He said he is especially excited about the repurposing of the Herald's Community Room for a downtown library branch.
"People who live downtown but don't have access to transportation could use this, and this won't be the significant investment of building an entirely new facility. It's a great reuse of an existing space," Lund said. "I think it is just fantastic."
Lund also said he is excited about the potential of an executive board room that could be used by the EDC and other tenants of the building.
"With the latest technology, it would be an upgrade in regard to where we're meeting now," Lund said.
With board approval, Kuntz said the school district would be in the building as soon as Feb. 1. The issue will be discussed at the next school board meeting, also scheduled for Monday.
The lease the school district will be discussing will last a term of two years, with rent increasing if the district decides to occupy the space for longer than that period.
The school district would have moved in sooner, had there not been a roadblock, Kuntz said. Last month, an advocacy group protested Grand Forks Public Schools moving into the Herald building. The group claims that moving into the Herald building would violate the rights of students with disabilities.
The school district countered, saying the proposal does not violate the rights of students, as "general education is the first setting considered" before placing students in the transitional program.
If the city agrees to sign a lease, Kuntz said the first floor would be move-in ready in about 90 days. Construction on the second floor of the building will take about 30 days.
Each entity would be renting its respective space for $13.75 per square foot. Kuntz said renting a newly constructed office space downtown typically costs $25 per square foot.
"This is a below market rate cost," Kuntz said.
If everything goes according to Kuntz's plan, other developments will spring up nearby. For example, across the street, in what is currently the Herald's parking lot, would be a two-story parking garage with either commercial space or apartments above it.
Kuntz said he and his partner's intent with this project is to make the space as collaborative as possible.
"We want young people mixing with older people. We can get some neat interaction," he said.
Kyle Kvamme, also with Icon, said there would be a different kind of energy in the building.
"Having all of those different entities interacting, you will have spontaneous collaboration," Kvamme said. "This is how we get ahead. We have to do the things that our neighbors don't see yet."
Almost half of the people who live downtown are UND students, said Kuntz, who believes the space would be attractive to those living downtown because they won't have to drive to the Chester Fritz Library or the Memorial Union to study. And while the Memorial Union is being renovated, Kuntz said, students could use the downtown space.
Students would be able to sign up for study rooms on the first floor of the Herald building at night. Kuntz said he envisions classes for nontraditional students being taught downtown in this space or senior citizens using the space for meetings.
The new library, which would go in what is now the Herald's Community Room, would become an amenity that would give the public more options for downtown activities, Kuntz said.
"Downtown you can either go to a bar from 7 p.m. on or you can go where?" he said. "Nowhere."
The downtown library branch would potentially be open later into the evening, Kuntz said.
"It would be available for all ages. If you're a first-grader you can go to the library and seniors can reserve those rooms and use the library during the day," Kuntz said.
And, Kuntz said, this plan would be good for the Herald.
"This is some permanence for the Herald, some commitments from higher-ups," Kuntz said. "It is super important for the Herald to stay in the community."