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Grand Forks' new plan, key to downtown's future, has been 'a long time coming'

Grand Forks leaders are seeking a consultant to help it design a downtown "master plan," which could reshape spaces like Town Square. (Herald photo/Sam Easter)

When City Administrator Todd Feland looks at downtown Grand Forks, he sees a bigger, brighter future.

The parking lot at Fifth Street and DeMers Avenue could someday be the site of a new building—living space on top, storefronts on the bottom. Town Square could get a facelift. The old water treatment plant, which is soon to be phased out, could become a crown jewel in a reshaped Grand Forks skyline.

"It (offers) the best view in Grand Forks," Feland said of the site, where a tall enough building would overlook the Red River and the Red Lake River. "Whatever we want it to do, we want it to have scale, we want it to have height."

Building a better downtown has been part of Grand Forks' political DNA for years now, but the city's present enthusiasm is perhaps as strong as it's been since aftermath of the Flood of 1997. City leaders are riding the momentum of a June political victory setting Arbor Park as the future site of a new condo high-rise. They're touting their support for Gov. Doug Burgum's own vision for hipper, more exciting Main Streets around the state. And they're apparently ready to spend six figures on a consultant's help as they shepherd downtown into the next decade—and beyond.

In city documents, it's called the "Downtown Master Plan," and it's sweeping. City leaders voted Feb. 5 to begin seeking a firm to draw it up, and once it's finished, it will have suggestions for pedestrian and bike flow, downtown "parks and open space" and more. And Feland clarified that, for his estimated six-figure price, he sees the consultant offering a long-term relation rather than a single document. The city could immediately ask for advice on upcoming individual projects, like on a facelift for Town Square.

Long focus

The city has been heading down this path for years, with thousands of dollars and countless hours already poured into shaping Grand Forks' future skyline. Leaders from the city, UND, the Community Foundation and others took a 2015 trip to Fort Collins, Colo., to explore ways to make Grand Forks more "vibrant"—drawing inspiration from public art, the city's farmers market and more. The roughly $21,000 trip was partially funded by grant and private contributions, with the city picking up about $4,500. Leaders also made a separate visit to Winnipeg.

Those were among the earliest moves the city made in its "vibrancy initiative," launched in 2015, which culminated in volunteer committees, community brainstorming and big ideas about the future of local public art and Grand Forks' downtown. One such committee delivered a "vibrancy report" built around several big ideas, like "create bold public spaces," "improve access to and around downtown" and "animate street life."

And the themes the report captured—and the economic ideas it was built upon—help sketch City Hall's goals. Top officials have spoken repeatedly of downtown development boosting the tax base, drawing more to the area and boosting local businesses.

Jonathan Holth was co-chairman of the group that compiled that report. He said that, for all it offered, a master plan will go further. Not only will a consulting firm help tackle the technical questions of downtown development, but even having a plan in place can help entice developers, too.

And as Gov. Doug Burgum has pursued his first year in office, he's argued for similar philosophies in his "Main Street Initiative," which sees hip downtown areas as magnets for talented young workers and a solution to the state's worker shortage.

But the city's run into growing pains, too, most notably in the political showdown at Arbor Park, where city-backed development ran up against committed opponents attached to the park's nostalgia and charm. City Council Vice President Ken Vein said that sends a message.

"I would say inclusion is really important," he said. "We need to (give) those people that are downtown a part of the process earlier, making sure we're listening to everybody."

There are already plans underway to start reshaping downtown. The Townhouse hotel, recently under new ownership, could soon see construction on nearby parcels of land by 2019 or earlier. Vein said coming road reconstruction on DeMers Avenue—expected to unfold in 2020—has been an important catalyst for the master planning process itself.

That could begin as soon as the end of spring, when Feland said the city will likely have settled on a consulting firm. And Sarah Prout, executive director of the city's Downtown Development Association, said she's looking forward to new advice arriving.

"I think it's been a long time coming," she said, "and something that's much-needed for our community."

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