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Grand Forks Council gives nod to downtown planner search

Grand Forks City Hall, 255 N. 4th St. Sam Easter / Grand Forks Herald

Clocking in at only about 10 minutes, Monday's Grand Forks City Council meeting was one of the shortest in a long while—but it was one of the more consequential for downtown's future.

City leaders voted 7-0 to approve a lengthy list of agenda items, two of which have significant implications for the city center. One tweaks "tax increment financing" policies, which use bonds or tax exemptions to spur local growth. The other sends the city looking for a consultant to draw up a "downtown master plan," a document that will outline the neighborhood's biggest upcoming developments, like the future of the downtown water treatment plant.

Both items were discussed in greater detail at a committee meeting last month, where they were also approved, making Monday's vote expected. But the Council's final approval on both items could help reshape the downtown area in years ahead, and work in concert with philosophies touted by Gov. Doug Burgum—who sees hip downtown development as key to efficiently and attractively built communities.

"Our downtown is prospering, and I think with some additional construction...I think opportunities like that are going to bring more people downtown, which I think is going to bring more business downtown," City Council President Dana Sande said.

City Administrator Todd Feland has said that the planning document the city seeks could cost more than $100,000. But both he and Sande said that the report is necessary to help chart the future of specific projects and sites downtown, and will do it in far greater detail than the "vibrancy report" generated by a city committee in recent years.

"I don't mean to speak for the council, but I don't think we have the expertise to know how to do a good plan for our downtown," Sande said. "I think, in general, we wanted to get help from some people that actually know what a good downtown should be, and how it should be planned out."

The plan will consider a range of potential projects, city documents state, like new development near the Townhouse hotel or at the corner of DeMers Avenue and Fourth Street. It will also consider downtown parks and open spaces, Sande said.

The changes in tax increment financing brings city policy in line with state law. Now, the big projects that seek to benefit from them—like new construction or renovations—will see outside analysis by a financial firm, a higher bonding threshold and other shifts.

Sande said it's all part of making downtown thrive.

"There are lots of different locations right now that people are looking at in town, asking for some sort of incentive to help them get going," he said.

Sam Easter

Sam Easter is a City Government reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. You can reach him with story tips, comments and ideas at 701-330-3441.

(701) 780-1108