As more stores permanently shut their doors across the Greater Grand Forks region, the downturn in retail remains a chief concern for many residents.
In a Herald survey sent to nearly 3,000 residents in Grand Forks and Polk counties, respondents ranked retail decline as the chief economic challenge facing the region. Conducted in mid-February, the survey queried residents about several aspects of the immediate Grand Forks region, including economic concerns, social issues and government leadership. The survey gave multiple-choice options.
Of the 528 residents who responded to the survey, 45% said retail decline is the greatest economic issue in the area. That far surpassed concerns about property tax levels, which ranked as the second-most pressing economic challenge in the area. Slightly more than 17% of respondents cited property tax levels as their biggest economic concern. Competition from Fargo and income inequality tied for third, with 10.6% of respondents citing those as Grand Forks' top economic challenge.
A lack of economic diversity and "good jobs" ranked at the bottom of the list.
On the positive side, residents cited unmanned aerial systems as the "greatest success story" in Grand Forks' economy. Roughly 42 percent of respondents identified unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) as the best part about the region's economy.
Keith Lund, president and CEO of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp., said the industry has grown from 115 jobs in 2011 to more than 800 today.
In addition, 16% of respondents ranked downtown development as the greatest success in the regional economy.
"I think downtown development supports workforce growth and retention," Lund said. "A downtown is what makes a community unique. Having a vibrant downtown is extremely important because it helps create growth."
Higher education and research came in second. About 14% of respondents ranked higher ed as the greatest success in the area.
Substance abuse remains the biggest social concern for most Grand Forks residents: A whopping 65% of residents ranked it as the greatest social problem in the area.
Debbie Swanson, director of the Grand Forks Department of Public Health, said that result confirms the city's earlier research into health-related concerns in the area. In a 2016 community health assessment conducted in partnership with Altru Health System, the department surveyed residents about chief health concerns in the area. "The issue of substance use did come out on top, and in fact, three of our top priorities in that assessment relate to mental health," Swanson said.
In her view, substance abuse, binge drinking and mental health are all "interconnected," she said.
In the Herald's survey, mental health was the second biggest social concern among respondents, with about 11% of respondents citing it as the region's chief area of concern.
Crime came next at nearly 10%. Homelessness, discrimination and intolerance ranked near the bottom of the list.
It's not all bad news, though. Most respondents - nearly 46%- agreed that the region's "strong education systems" make for the best quality of life in the area.
Grading public officials
When it comes to Grand Forks' elected officials, many survey respondents gave community leaders average grades.
About 37% of residents gave the Grand Forks City Council a "C" grade. Nearly 29% of respondents gave the council a "B" grade and 17% had no opinion on the city council's performance. Slightly more than 3% of respondents gave the City Council an "A."
City Council member Dana Sande said the results suggest that most people in Grand Forks are "very satisfied with our government."
"Because most people are satisfied, I don't think they pay a lot of attention to all the things going on in the city government," he said. "We can always do better, certainly."
To that end, the city is retooling its website to make it "much more customer focused" than it used to be, Sande said.
"We see our citizens as our customers and are always striving for better customer service," he said.
Mayor Michael Brown generally got a "B" from those surveyed. Thirty-five percent of respondents gave the mayor a "B" grade, 24% gave him a "C" grade and 16% gave him an "A."
Brown said that he is happy with a "B."
"I strived for B's in medical school and college," Brown said. "I think those who strive so hard for that 'A' are too focused on the grade and not on the work they're doing. But those F's will keep you humble."
Brown said it's "phenomenal" to see what the community has accomplished in the 19 years he has been mayor. But, he said, he's got to give credit to his predecessors.
"We're standing on their shoulders," Brown said. "Now it's our job to continue to make it better."
The mayor also said that his job is to listen and he feels the grade he received reflected that he's been listening to the community.
"If you don't listen, you're gone," Brown said.
Respondents were a bit more indifferent about government leaders on the other side of the river. The majority of respondents answered "no opinion" when asked to grade East Grand Forks' elected leaders. Nearly 50% had no opinion of Mayor Steve Gander, and about 47% had the same response for East Grand Forks City Council.
However, "B" was the prevailing grade among those who did provide a rating. Twenty-five percent of respondents gave Gander a "B," and about 27% gave the same grade to the council. About 14% gave Gander a "C," while 9% gave him an "A."
When reached for comment Thursday morning, Gander jokingly said the "B" was "unacceptable."
"I've got to do better," he said. "As long as I'm in this office, I want to find new and better ways to listen to people."
The city has been updating its website and increasing its social media presence to improve communication with residents, Gander said.
Dave Murphy, who's served as East Grand Forks' city administrator for more than 20 years, said the current council is "one of the best" he's worked with.
Council members have been "a lot more willing to look at long-term issues and make tough decisions," Murphy said, noting that the council in January voted to raise the property tax levy to bring the city's fund balance back into order. "I like the fact that they are really looking toward the future and trying to come up with a vision of where we need to be, what kind of city we want to be 15 years from now."
Mark Olstad, president of the East Grand Forks City Council, said the current council has "accomplished a lot."
"We got through a lot of struggles that were no fault of the city," Olstad said, citing declines in local government funding.
At-large council member Marc DeMers said "B seems like a pretty good grade," though he acknowledged there's "always room for improvement."
"We've made some great strides and maybe that's indicative of why we got a B," DeMers said.
Chamber leaders 'very pleased'
The Chamber of Commerce scored a "B." Nearly 35% of respondents gave the Chamber a "B" and the Chamber scored a "C" with almost 27% of respondents. Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the Chamber, said he is "real pleased" with that grade.
"I would be disappointed if we got an 'A,'" Wilfahrt said. "Our goal is to drive growth and embrace change and if we would have gotten an 'A,' that would mean to me that we're too risk averse and complacent."
Wilfahrt said the Chamber serves its member businesses, so it isn't surprising the general public wouldn't totally agree with every decision the organization makes.
"The general public isn't our client. We have 1,100 member businesses and that's who we work for," Wilfahrt said. "Most of their values are going to sync up with the community overall, but not perfectly."
Examples of this are the Chamber's support of developing Arbor Park and its support of the sales tax for filling in potholes, which was voted on in November of 2017.
The EDC also received a grade of "B." Thirty-one percent of respondents gave the EDC a "B."
Lund said he was excited to see that more than 50% of respondents had "a very positive view of the EDC," meaning they either ranked it an "A" or "B."
"I'm very pleased with that," Lund said.
The EDC's work in the primary sector is something Lund said earned the organization its grade. Lund listed expansions at LM Wind Power, Cirrus Aircraft and J.R. Simplot. He also named the groundbreaking of the $70 million Red River Biorefinery as a success.
"We've seen really strong growth in manufacturing in the last five years," Lund said.
Lund also said manufacturing jobs in Grand Forks pay 20% more than jobs in the same sector in other parts of the region.
Manufacturing remains a bright spot in Grand Forks' economy. Though the region's overall gross domestic product, or GDP, has begun to decline after years of growth, manufacturing GDP actually grew nearly 8% between 2016 and 2017, as reported in the Herald in March.