For Grand Forks mayor candidates: What to do about workforce?

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Grand Forks’ workforce has, for decades, been more or less flat.

According to federal statistics, the civilian labor force in the Grand Forks area — which includes portions of Polk County, in Minnesota — has been at its pre-pandemic level of about 54,000 plenty of times before: in the mid-1990s, in the mid 2000s, and once again in 2018. Meanwhile, the same statistic for the Bismarck area is nearly 10,000 people higher than its mid-1990s peak. The Fargo area’s difference is nearly 35,000.

This spring, Grand Forks residents are making their choice on who will be the city's next mayor. Official challengers are Brandon Bochenski and Robin David, while Art Bakken says he is conducting a write-in campaign after being unable to gather enough signatures to get on the ballot due to the pandemic. Mike Brown is the incumbent.

The Herald asked this year’s candidates for mayor: What’s to be done about workforce?

Mike Brown

When the incumbent mayor talks about building community workforce, he talks about a long record of supporting important community programs — either from the start or along the way.


“These things didn’t happen in a vacuum,” he said, referring to things like the Downtown Development Association, which he said “initiated right here in this office,” or the “Grand Forks is Cooler” workforce-boosting advertising campaign, for which he has offered support.

Pressed, though, on that relatively flat labor force over the years, Brown defended his mayoral record over the past two decades, referring again to large projects that have unfolded during his tenure.

“We expect our leaders to dream. After every state of the city (address), I’ll mention something, and then three years it’ll happen — like the CanadInn at the events center,” Brown said. “And then we wanted the Greenway, and then we dreamed bike paths, and then we dreamed Choice Health and Fitness. And people take that dream and make it a reality. ... If you look at the success we’ve had for our 20 years, I don’t know why we wouldn’t want another four.”

Pressed again on what his vision is for the road ahead, Brown reiterated his support to entice tech entrepreneurs to Grand Forks, and said he’s excited by the promise the purchase of the Grand Forks Herald building holds for the downtown area.

“The school district has a downtown office, the library is going to have an extension there,” he said. “The Herald is going to be there. The (Economic Development Corporation) is already there. I think the collaborative part of this is what makes the future work so well.”

Brown added that the city’s “vibrancy” — a shorthand term for the strength of its public life and outward appeal — is key.

“Because millennials, they pick a place to live, and then they find a job — and that’s what we’re seeing in this new economy,” he said. “We need to have a community that’s welcoming and productive.”

Brandon Bochenski

For Bochenski, a real estate agent and developer, the issue with Grand Forks’ labor supply comes back to affordability.


“There are jobs available here," he said. “They just aren’t paying enough to make a person want to move here.”

That requires a plan, Bochenski said, that starts with lower property taxes. Lower property taxes, he believes, will spur economic growth.

And that, of course, is deeply complicated by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, whose effects threaten to derail city finances and bankrupt small businesses in North Dakota and around the country. Bochenski envisions a city steered through the crisis with fewer capital improvement projects and a city employee hiring freeze.

“I think we’re going to freeze wages until we can have some sort of growth here,” he said, adding that he plans to discuss cost-cutting with city department heads.

“I just think we need to be more realistic, is the big thing,” Bochenski added. “I think that we have a lot of great things here, but we need to be more realistic both about the problems that we have, and we can’t just constantly puff up this future tech stuff that hasn’t quite unfolded to a level that’s helping an everyday person.”

Robin David

For Robin David, a city workforce and immigration staffer, the question of what happens next with the local labor force means being prepared to respond to the effects of the pandemic. In particular, she talked about a potential surge in demand for education as workers adapt to a post-pandemic economy, and the need to make sure employees themselves are at the table, helping the city make local policy.

“There’s going to be shifting, and being able to partner with Job Service North Dakota, Northland Community Technical College, UND, (and the local Economic Development Corporation) in managing some of those shifts," she said, stressing that it "is going to be critical.”

David points out that much of her work prior the pandemic was involved with city policy on workforce — a body of knowledge and experience that she would bring to the mayor’s office.


“That work that I had done was very much focused on making sure that Grand Forks is a place where people want to put down roots, where they have that chance to make connections and to grow and to thrive and to advance here,” she said. “And my goal would be to be able to continue that, and you know, just kind of bring that up to a higher level at the mayor’s office.”

Art Bakken

Art Bakken, a former City Council member, said the question of building city workforce naturally has to come after the pandemic. And to do so, the city has to both look for new businesses to come to the city and keep old “customers,” in his words, with tax incentives for building or expanding.

“If I have a customer, it's my benefit to do whatever I can to keep that customer, because it's easier and cheaper to try and keep that customer than to go out and get them back,” Bakken said. "Obviously it depends on which customer it is, what their needs are, try and address them and try to make things easier for the city to do things with."

Sam Easter is a freelance reporter who has been a regular contributor to the Herald since 2019. He covers a variety of topics, including government and politics.

In 2015, he joined the Herald’s staff as City Hall reporter, covering North Dakota politics at all levels and conducting Herald investigations through early 2018, when he began his freelancing career.

Easter can be reached at or via Twitter via @samkweaster.
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