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Silver lining appears amid Grand Forks' recovery from the worst of the COVID pandemic

Census data shows that the rate of new business formations in North Dakota bottomed out in April 2020, reaching a nearly decade low. But that figure had nearly doubled by January, and has stayed relatively high since.

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Sarah Horak, co-owner of Level 10, Brick and Barley and O'Really's in downtown Grand Forks, started selling cookies to boost business during the pandemic. The cookies were a hit and spun off a new business and website, "Real Good Cookies," with orders shipped to 47 states. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

It hasn’t been easy to find silver linings this past year. COVID has reordered so much in everyday life — as has its delta variant, now on the rise throughout the U.S. — that it can be difficult to look ahead with much optimism.

But even as much devastation as COVID has brought, there have been a few bright spots. And Sarah Horak might have stumbled on one of them.

Horak is the co-owner of Level 10, Brick and Barley and O’Really’s, all downtown fixtures that saw their customer streams ravaged by the pandemic. It’s easy to look back now, months later, and know that customers would eventually come back. But back then there was no obvious end, no script to follow, no instructions for how to handle a sudden stop to everyday life.

But as customers stayed home, takeout orders picked up. Horak started selling cookies with takeaway — a lot of them.

"People just went crazy over the cookies," Horak said. "They wouldn't even order any other food item. They would just call and say, can I get a dozen of those cookies?"

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As interest in those cookies grew, they got their own branding and spin-off company and website. Orders were shipped to 47 states. They’re called Real Good Cookies, and they’re functionally a fruit of the pandemic.

“(It’s a) perfect example of taking something that you had to pivot to do, and now it’s running so successfully,” said Blue Weber, executive director of the Grand Forks Downtown Development Association.

“We’re seeing small businesses being able to step up in ways that large corporations aren’t able to as quickly,” Weber added. “The fact that I can order to-go food, anywhere, nowadays and the outdoor dining scene has exploded and become this thing — a lot of those things get me really excited.”

Those changes are keeping people in Grand Forks and beyond optimistic.

The changes that have been driven by COVID run even deeper than business pivots or restaurants staking out streetside dining. U.S. Census data shows that the rate of new business formations in North Dakota bottomed out in April 2020, reaching a nearly decade low. But that figure had nearly doubled by January, and has stayed relatively high since.

So while it’s true that many businesses have had to close through the pandemic — buried by slow traffic or by virus restrictions — the national economy is also seeing some of its biggest influxes of new business startups in years.

“We’re seeing more and more people stepping up wanting to open up their own small business now,” Weber said.

Julie Rygg is executive director of the local convention and visitors bureau. Speaking in late July, she was happy to see event calendars for places like the Alerus Center filling back up, and she is excited about the return of Canadian visitors to the community. Throughout the spring, COVID ebbed, and that’s offering big opportunities for the return of concerts, conventions and more.

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It’s true that both the border and local events could depend heavily on the future of the delta variant. But Rygg also pointed out a hopeful deal for a new aquarium at the Grand Cities Mall, plus plans for development downtown that could bring in even more events.

RELATED: Grand Forks redevelopment proposals would transform Townhouse, Memorial Stadium, St. John’s Block

“Obviously a lot of businesses are continuing to see the impact (of the pandemic), particularly of the border being closed,” Rygg said. “But things are hopeful for the future and are moving in the right direction.”

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