City to push for redevelopment proposals at Grand Forks School Board meeting

Four redevelopment projects are seeking temporary tax breaks that would need to be approved by the city, county, and school district. Grand Forks City Hall leaders are set to head to a Grand Forks Public Schools board meeting next week and a Grand Forks County Commission meeting later this month to advocate for them.

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Developers are looking at St. John's Block, at the intersection of DeMers Avenue and North Third Street. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald
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Grand Forks city leaders plan to advocate for a quartet of development plans at school district and county meetings this month and next.

Accompanied by the developers themselves, Mayor Brandon Bochenski, City Council President Dana Sande and City Administrator Todd Feland are set to present at the Monday, Jan. 11, Grand Forks School Board meeting four redevelopment plans that need the go-ahead from board members and Grand Forks County commissioners. The city group plans to head to a Jan. 19 commission meeting to do the same.

"We're shepherding them through," Feland said.

The redevelopment plans would build up large pieces of downtown Grand Forks and the University of North Dakota campus . They include Epic Companies’ $48.9 million plan to turn the now-defunct Townhouse Hotel into apartments, retail space, and a plaza; Burian & Associates’ $25 million-plus plan to replace the university’s Memorial Stadium; a consortium of developers’ $7 million plan to renovate St. John’s Block; and Northridge Construction’s $27.3 million plan to turn Lyons Auto, which sits across from Grand Forks City Hall, into several stories’ worth of office, retail and apartments.

All four projects have received preliminary City Council approval for “tax increment financing” tax breaks, and a North Dakota law enacted in 2017 stipulates that other taxing entities must sign off on any such plan that would lower a developer’s taxes for more than five years. In this case, that means the school district and county.


A subcommittee comprised of school district, county, Grand Forks Park District, and city representatives met Dec. 10 for a preview of those four plans, but took no formal action and made no formal recommendation. The park district levies taxes of its own, but it’s a subsidiary of the city and thus doesn’t have a meaningful vote on the proposed tax breaks.

Representatives for the Townhouse, Memorial Stadium, and St. John’s Block projects each submitted preliminary tax increment financing requests in the fall of 2020. The Lyons Auto project was first submitted in November 2018 but hasn’t moved much further through Grand Forks City Hall since then.

Tax increment financing is one of a handful of incentives municipal governments have at their disposal to lure developers. Through a “TIF,” a developer fixes up or rebuilds a piece of land, making it more valuable and thus more taxable, but, for an agreed-upon period of years, pays property taxes as if they hadn’t touched it. When those years are up, the owner then pays property taxes as normal using the new, higher land valuation.

The four projects before the School Board could be a touchy subject for school district leaders, who are weighing a facilities plan that could mean a voter-approved tax increase. How might residents feel about the district asking them for a tax increase while offering a tax break to a developer?

“As an elected official, you’re always concerned about perception,” Amber Flynn, the board’s president, told the Herald. “But I think we're in this space in our community now where people want to step forward and help and they recognize that if we can make it possible for growth and development to happen then that's a possibility that we should explore.”

Broadly speaking, board members have worried about handing out tax breaks while the district deficit spends, Flynn said, but also understand that not doing so could torpedo a redevelopment project. That wouldn’t help the district’s finances, either. Flynn herself said she also looks for ways a redevelopment proposal could help the district or its students beyond a balance sheet. J.R. Simplot, which built an expansion in 2019 under a TIF plan, provides the potatoes for the school district’s lunch vendor, Flynn noted, and often hired recent immigrants, whose children generally attend district schools.

“That's not always a deciding factor to me,” Flynn said, “but it's an important piece that I like to consider.”


Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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