'Small businesses are in crisis': Grand Forks business owner urges city leaders to 'step in'

The downtown Grand Forks boutique Voxxy is no more. Its owner is urging city leaders to get involved and said downtown construction 'ravaged a lot of businesses.'

Downtown Grand Forks boutique Voxxy will close Sunday, Dec. 15, according to owner Mary Burd. Adam Kurtz/ Grand Forks Herald

Closing Voxxy, the downtown Grand Forks fashion boutique, wasn’t easy for owner Mary Burd. In a heartfelt social media post , she thanked her friends and family for their support, reminded her employees of their hard work and thanked her customers for their business.

And she offered a few words for local leaders, too.

“To the city of Grand Forks: Please understand that small businesses are in crisis,” she wrote. “Your city needs you to step in. You should address the serious decline in sales tax, retail distress, and help these remaining businesses. … You can build buildings. You can host parades. You can widen roads. You need to build community. We all belong to one another. We are stronger when we support one another.”

That lament caps the latest retail closure in Grand Forks in a long line of them, stretching back through Macy’s , Kmart , Shopko , Sears , Pier 1 , Dressbarn , Rue 21, Payless Shoes, Yankee Candle, Shoe Carnival and Chicos. Bed Bath & Beyond and the Gap have announced they will follow suit soon. And while every business that closes does so under its own unique auspices, the trend is leaving local leadership — especially downtown — focusing on ways to keep community businesses thriving.

But perhaps one of Burd’s most pointed criticisms was for the effects of downtown construction along DeMers Avenue, which she told the Herald earlier this month “ravaged a lot of the businesses” in the area. She was unable to be reached by the Herald for this story.


Yet City Administrator Todd Feland notes that the city waived parking assessments for the downtown business district — the fees assessed to help fund city parking ramps — during 2019, and is considering doing so in 2020. He argued the city does its best to balance business interests with growth interests.

“We know even with all that, construction does have its impacts,” he said. “It’s true to say that these projects will only lead to further investment and growth.”

And in North Dakota’s largest downtown centers there’s no shortage of ideas on how to keep customers interested. Blue Weber, executive director of Grand Forks’ Downtown Development Association, said one key ingredient is density: more apartments, more condos and more white-collar workers.

“Housing is a very important thing. … Also, one thing that’s important to me is office. We need more people working downtown. One office worker supports 100 square feet of retail, and that can both be retail as in ‘shop’ or retail as in ‘restaurant.’ And that’s because that person working down there, they’re more inclined to go and eat after they’re done with work, and they’re also more inclined to shop.”

That philosophy helps reframe many big downtown projects not merely as additions to the city center, but as economic dynamos that make downtown greater than the sum of its parts. Notably, the new downtown Hugo’s on the corner of Fifth Street and DeMers Avenue, set to open with an Alerus Bank branch and 68 apartment units in 2020, will bring a supermarket offering to the downtown area soon, as well. It’s something Weber said has a significant multiplying effect for local retail revenues.

“You look at what downtown Fargo looked like 10 years ago, and it wasn’t the booming, bustling well-known community that it is now,” Weber said. “It was in a growth spurt, and they were having to make some of those decisions of, ‘OK, we need to invest in this area.’ And so those investments, though they can be tough to look at in the five-minute window, they really are for the long-lasting impact.”

That growth can sometimes come in fits and starts, and construction can mean a big disruption for downtown life. One of Grand Forks City Hall’s loudest arguments for the development of Arbor Park — the beloved Fourth Street pocket park built over with a mixed-use condo building — was city growth . And one of the biggest pressures on Voxxy, as Burd told the Herald, was extended construction of DeMers Avenue.

Construction is a familiar headache in Fargo, where Weber’s counterpart, Downtown Community Partnership President and CEO Melissa Rademacher, said businesses have been dealing with much of the same recently, grappling with work along Main Avenue.


“When you have growth or remodeling or development or construction projects, that impacts you negatively in one way or another. We really need to educate the public — we’re open for business. It’s business as usual. It’s not a construction site. It’s safe,” she said. “It’s really just (about) empowering your people and your business to stay with it and do the best they can.”

In Bismarck, the recipe for downtown success looks slightly different. Kate Herzog, COO of the Downtown Business Association, points out that the local mall is practically next door to the downtown area, making it essentially part of the same business district. But the same challenges remain: how to support local, independent business — stores that operate not just on the presumption that shoppers will find what they’re looking for, but that they’ll have a memorable, local experience doing it.

“It takes a lot to run a good retail operation, and I think a lot of people maybe don’t realize just maybe how important those local businesses and retail are until they’re gone,” Herzog said.

What To Read Next
Get Local