Signs of hope emerge despite pandemic's grip
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following appeared in a special section titled "Greater Grand Forks Community," which published in the Aug. 29 edition of the Grand Forks Herald.
Right now, things don't look so great for Grand Forks. Coronavirus cases keep ticking upward, leaving local residents worried for their safety and the local economy wavering. Now, nearing six months since the start of the crisis, it might be easy to feel like it'll never get better.
That's not true, of course. And local officials say there's plenty of reasons to think that, someday not long from now, Grand Forks could be doing as well as it ever has.
Perhaps one of the biggest is Grand Forks' ability to keep its young people. Keith Lund, president and CEO of the local Economic Development Corporation, points out that young professionals are sticking around Grand Forks at encouraging rates: during the past eight years, the 25-to-39 set has grown by 15%.
"For years, North Dakota has had the reputation of a brain drain — that our biggest export was our youth," Lund said. "Grand Forks was part of that for many years. It feels like we've turned that ship around."
And for now, there are indications that the pandemic hasn't gouged the local economy as badly as the worst predictions — made early in during the pandemic — might have imagined. According to City Hall documents, Grand Forks sales tax numbers are more than 10% ahead of where they were this time last year.
City Administrator Todd Feland points to this statistic as a good sign.
"People have come to visit with the mayor and I on an ongoing basis for opportunities for them to grow and expand," Feland pointed out, arguing that many companies are taking the long view, which includes a vision of Grand Forks that's moved on from the pandemic and has continued to grow.
No, it won't be easy getting there. Speaking earlier this month, UND Economist David Flynn pointed out that healthy sales tax numbers don't necessarily mean a rosy economic outlook. If consumers are simply refitting their home offices for remote work — or making other such one-time purchases — then sales tax revenues could still see a big fall-off in the next several months.
But for now, Wilfhart said, the near-term may even bring a “new normal” before the pandemic recedes — weekly new unemployment claims are down from more than 1,400, which came near the beginning of April, to a more reliable figure that hovered in a few recent weeks between 120 and 140. That’s not good, but the lower figure is a heartening sign that the economic damage is contained.
And Grand Forks, just like anywhere else, can't step into the same river twice. City leaders often say how the pandemic is accelerating changes underway that hurt small retailers — like an increasing pivot to online shopping. When the pandemic is over, Grand Forks won't be the city it used to be.
Wilfahrt points out that this could mean more remote work for local employees — it could mean opportunities for local businesses to expand or grow in new ways, too.
"Anytime there's change there's always opportunity,” he said. “Good businesses are always looking for and finding those opportunities."