Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown predicted a “billion dollar boom” last February as a series of developments got off the ground across the city.
City staff expect that boom to sound for the next three years or so, and the time, effort and money that government -- and, perhaps more importantly, business and community -- leaders are set to pour into Grand Forks rivals what was spent to get the city back on its feet after the epochal Flood of 1997.
“A billion is a lot of validation in Grand Forks,” Brown said at his 2019 state of the city address. That number is a rough figure that includes estimated construction costs for University of North Dakota infrastructure and redevelopments, a new water treatment plant, a renovation of Altru Hospital and a bevy of industrial and commercial development on the city’s westerly edge.
About $100 million of that figure is expected to be spent downtown, for which city leaders and consultants put together an “action plan” that attempts to unify several existing ideas for the area: hoped-for or already-underway redevelopments at about a dozen spots from University Avenue to Minnesota Avenue, a multimillion dollar renovation of Town Square and a handful of other city parks, a system of downtown bike paths, plus a unified aesthetic -- “streetscape” -- that would suggest a “gateway” to the city on either end of the downtown stretch of DeMers Avenue.
But some of those developments haven’t been welcome. Arbor Park, an unofficial park that sprang up in an empty downtown lot, was a hot spot for the Grand Forks arts scene for years until the city moved to redevelop it.
The resulting back-and-forth culminated in a citywide referendum that would have compelled the city to transfer the park land to the Grand Forks Park District. That measure was narrowly defeated in June 2017 and the city sold the land to a developer that, in turn, is putting together the Selkirk on 4th condos, where the park once sat.
Former resident C.T. Marhula challenged the vote’s results in front of the North Dakota Supreme Court, where he argued that the city illegally consolidated polling places to the Alerus Center. Justices ruled that the case was moot because the city had already sold the land.
But the boom and its shockwaves aren’t the only big stories of the 2010s.
Here, in no particular order, are nine others that shaped the city, sometimes literally, in the past decade:
LaGrave on First: Grand Forks has a cadre of people who work tirelessly to serve the homeless, but the city’s social safety net, nonetheless, has holes. One of them was patched up, so to speak, when LaGrave on First opened.
It’s the city’s first permanent housing complex for the chronically homeless -- people who’ve been struggling to find a place of their own for more than a year. Residents must also have a drug addiction or a mental illness, among other conditions.
The $8 million facility has 42 one-bedroom units, and it filled up quickly. LaGrave is meant to be a permanent home for its tenants, rather than the temporary set-up offered by shelters, such as Northlands Rescue Mission.
Beyond a laundry room, communal kitchen and ready access to public transit, LaGrave also offers addiction counseling and other on-site support services that can help address the underlying causes of homelessness.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day: Decade after decade, Grand Forks recognized Columbus Day without much fanfare -- city offices stayed open, for instance.
But, in a part of the world where Ojibwe, Dakota and Métis lived and traded for centuries, the symbolism of a day celebrating a man whose brutal treatment of indigenous people in the Caribbean became a sort-of blueprint for North American colonialism didn’t go unnoticed.
A host of activists and supporters pushed the Grand Forks City Council to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. Council members unanimously agreed to do so in July 2019.
The resolution they approved urges Grand Forks Public Schools and the University of North Dakota to follow suit, and the latter did so about a week afterward. The school district has not.
Grand Forks’ first ever Indigenous Peoples Day celebration was held Oct. 14 of this year. It included a talk by several prominent American Indian scholars and academics, and a performance by Thomas X, a rapper from Red Lake Nation, a large Ojibwe community in Northwestern Minnesota.
Wastewater work: Construction on a new water treatment plant outside Grand Forks is in its final stretch.
It’ll replace one near the Red River -- that site is set to be redeveloped under the city’s sweeping plan for its downtown.
The new plant isn’t glamorous, but it’s the result of years’ worth of effort from multiple iterations of the Grand Forks City Council and city administrators. State and city leaders agreed to split the cost of the new plant, and city staff secured the final $9 million for the project from the state this fall.
And, concurrently, Grand Forks and East Grand Forks officials hammered out an agreement to send Eastside sewage west to Grand Forks, which would treat up to 1.2 million gallons of it each day. The $10 million deal alleviates pressure on East Grand Forks’ rapidly filling sewage lagoons, and the project is believed to be the first of its kind that crosses state lines. The City Engineers Association of Minnesota named it the 2018 Project of the Year.
Changeover at the Alerus Center: Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown axed a pair of Alerus Center leaders in November 2016 after they were put on leave earlier that fall. City documents indicated that then-Executive Director Cheryl Swanson and Assistant Director Bob LeBarron fostered a toxic work environment.
The city ultimately opted to outsource the center’s operations to Philadelphia, Pa.-based Spectra for $144,000 per year, plus further incentives if it hit marks for revenue and customer service.
The center is still publicly owned, but the transfer to private management has, in city leader’s estimation, been a success. Assuming one counts the millions the center brings in from sales taxes and other public sources as revenue rather than a loss or a subsidy -- a big assumption, for some -- the Alerus has posted modest profits for years, including about $300,000 in 2018 on the strength of a trio of high-profile concerts.
Center staff predict they’ll make about $140,000 in 2020.
Roundabouts: After years of work, Grand Forks installed the city’s first roundabout at 24th Avenue South and South 34th Street.
Roundabouts are an increasingly popular way to ease congestion in cities across the United States. They’re an intersection without traffic signals, where cars and other vehicles travel counterclockwise around a circular island and turn right to exit onto connecting roads. Studies routinely indicate that roundabouts are a safer way to design intersections.
Crews have since installed others, but the initial one here, at least anecdotally, threw many Grand Forks drivers for a loop.
A woman who lived nearby said they saw drivers in the roundabout who have “no idea what they’re doing,” and comment after comment on the city’s Facebook page indicated that residents were concerned drivers wouldn’t be able to navigate it.
The decline of brick-and-mortar retail: Sears, Macy’s, Kmart, Shopko, Pier 1, Dressbarn, The Gap -- those are all high-profile businesses who have shuttered their doors in Grand Forks or plan to do so in short order.
The closure of “big-box” retailers has meant an increasingly empty mall and a decline in sales tax revenue for the city, and that revenue stream was only recently bolstered by the addition of a sales tax on purchases made online.
Smaller-scale operations are worried, too. Mary Burd, the owner Voxxy, a now-closed fashion boutique in downtown Grand Forks, said small businesses are “in crisis” and called on city leaders to step in.
That’s at least one reason why the city is working on the developments that are encompassed by the decade’s top story. Adding more apartments, condos, offices -- and the white-collar workers who’d go along with them -- could help shore up the area’s flagging retail sector. Blue Weber, who heads the Grand Forks Downtown Development Association, said one office worker can support 100 square feet worth of a shopping or dining establishment.
Herald building purchase: The Grand Forks Herald has been buffeted by the same figurative winds that have closed newspaper after newspaper across the world. Rebuilt after the Flood of 1997, the paper’s office building was initially packed to the gills with workers -- but, like almost every other publication, it has gradually emptied out since then.
The Herald’s parent company, Fargo, N.D.-based Forum Communications, sold the building to the city of Grand Forks in April 2019 for $2.75 million.
The city has since put together a “master plan” for the building that includes sleek-looking co-working spaces, new city offices, an outdoor patio and a community board room. It’s budgeted $2 million to $2.5 million for the project and for subsequent renovations at Grand Forks City Hall, according to a “request for qualifications” the city published in November.
The paper’s editorial, advertising and administrative staff still work in the building, and they’re slated to use about a quarter of its second floor.
Bridge back-and-forth: Grand Forks and East Grand Forks planners first posited a fourth road bridge connecting the two cities in the late '60s. It has yet to be built.
It’s a long-simmering question in the Grand Cities, and one that leaders on both sides of the Red River have been pushing to answer in the past few years.
A study by the Metropolitan Planning Organization suggested that building a bridge at 32nd Avenue would have the best cost-to-benefit ratio for the two cities, and both adopted long-range plans that include one.
But that’s been the case in years prior, and some opponents of a 32nd Avenue bridge characterized it as a long-time placeholder more than a full-throated endorsement. Prior council members, opponents point out, also promised residents near 32nd Avenue that a new bridge wouldn’t be built there.
The cities agreed on yet another study that would clarify some of the finer points of a bridge there, among other aims, including how it might affect the flow of the Red River.
Pistol-packing mayor: A Herald reporter spotted Mayor Mike Brown’s pistol -- a 9mm Kahr semi-automatic -- during a 2012 interview.
Brown, an Air Force veteran and NRA member in his late 60s, said that he “used” his gun once: When a group of men accosted him at a gas station in the early '70s, he placed his pistol on the dashboard of his car. The men backed off, Brown said.
"I don't want to be a victim," Brown told the Herald in late 2012. "And I think it's the responsible thing to do to protect those you love, and anyone."
Defining the Decade schedule
Editor's note: This is the eighth in a series of headlining stories from the past decade.
Already online: Herald reporter Ann Bailey recaps the top agriculture stories of the decade, including the recent historic losses as farmers left massive numbers of crops in the fields due to adverse weather.
Already online: Herald journalist Pamela Knudson highlights the issues the Grand Forks school district has faced in the past 10 years, including a revitalization in arts facilities and a look at school building needs.
Already online: Grand Forks business writer Adam Kurtz tabulates the area's top financial and economic moments and noting the positive impacts created by Grand Sky.
Already online: Community editor Sydney Mook chooses the UND stories of the decade, and the Herald's sports department kicks off its top 10 stories.
TODAY: Grand Forks reporter Joe Bowen looks at the top issues for Grand Forks.
FRIDAY, Jan. 3: Reporter Sam Easter puts the spotlight on East Grand Forks, including the closing of Whitey's.