'Blue' colors downtown: What's ahead for Grand Forks' urban core
When he moved from Utah to Grand Forks 11 years ago, Alexander "Blue" Weber never thought he'd be here long term, he said. He came "on a whim" to check out the place where his parents, also from Utah, had relocated to teach at UND.
But things changed.
"Within the first three years, I realized this was the land of opportunity," he said.
Now, seven months into his job as executive director of the Downtown Development Association, Weber, 31, is buoyed by the opportunity to help shape the future of downtown Grand Forks.
"I literally got my dream job at the dream time," he said.
He's excited to be part of a movement to make downtown more attractive, for residents and visitors, he said.
"I see kind of this huge revitalization—almost a boom—going on here. When you look around the country, you see a lot of the same things we're seeing right now—that is, people want to live in the urban center.
"It's easy to identify that as millenials, but we're seeing even elderly people who want to live in urban centers where they have resources within arm's length."
Grand Forks has more than 1,000 housing units downtown, he said. "Within a few years, we're going to be adding anywhere from 150 to 300 new housing units."
Those residents will boost demand for services and resources such as groceries, bars, restaurants and retail shops.
Weber has found that leaders in other cities, such as Minneapolis and Denver, "are saying they wish they could put a grocery store in their downtown," but space is unavailable, he said.
The addition of the Hugo's grocery store at the corner of DeMers Avenue and North Fifth Street "is going to be a really big win," he said. "It's a huge need and huge asset for us."
Of the proposed structure, he said, "There are some renderings out there, and it's looking like it's going to be a really, really neat project."
But preserving the city's historical landmarks is important too, he said, noting that the proposed development of Lyons automotive supply and adjacent properties "is very interesting to me."
Weber welcomes the chance to work with and learn from the building's owner and representatives of the Historical Preservation Commission, he said.
Other downtown construction projects on the horizon—including Selkirk on Fourth, the DeMers Avenue construction and the new Hugo's store—also present opportunity as well as challenges, he said.
"We're constantly talking about ways we can be proactive rather than reactive."
For example, he and his colleague, Katie Rehder, DDA event and marketing coordinator, are working on a informational campaign to assure citizens and visitors that "downtown is still open" when major construction on DeMers Avenue begins.
Weber is in an unusual position, given that his father, Bret Weber, serves as a City Council member, representing a ward that includes downtown. Bret Weber and his wife, Carenlee Barkdull, are social work professors at UND.
Blue Weber brings a wide range of experiences to his role as DDA's executive director.
Since arriving in Grand Forks as a 20-year-old, he has worked "for probably about 25 different places," he said.
At the DDA, he works with a 15-member board that includes downtown business owners, lawyers, accountants, developers and residents.
Committed to "growing the success of downtown," the DDA sponsors 11 events throughout the year, including the Art and Wine Walk, Art on the Red, the downtown street fair and Holly Dazzle, and occasional pop-up events.
As Weber talks about the community—especially the strengths and potential of the urban core—it's easy to get swept up in the excitement he exudes for his adopted hometown.
"We're in this amazing state of constantly moving forward," he said. "It's a lot more achievable in a community of this size."
Weber and his fiance, Jessica Nolz, a special education teacher, have a personal stake in how downtown Grand Forks develops. They exemplify the portion of the populace that Grand Forks leaders hope to attract and retain, and that is drawn to city centers.
"We have a nice house near downtown," he said. "I like having a two-minute commute."
He and Nolz "are both big urbanites," he said. "We both really enjoy our lives here."
They're planning a fall wedding on the Greenway, north of DeMers, he said.
"It was a way for us to get that outdoor feel while still being in the heart of our favorite city."