Mayor Mike Brown hopes to make Grand Forks a new kind of “destination city.”
During his annual State of the City address Friday at the Alerus Center, Brown called for a “Destination City 3.0” initiative designed to boost the city’s flagging retail sector.
“There are no easy paths to success. No silver bullets,” he intoned in front of a large crowd. “But there are solid business plans.”
It was one of a handful of new initiatives he announced. Brown also called for a “Live Well Grand Forks Initiative” and for the city to “pioneer the next generation of technology and be a growth center for the digital innovation economy.”
Many Grand Forks brick-and-mortar stores have struggled recently or closed entirely, including Gordmans department store, which coincidentally confirmed to the Herald it would close its locations here and in Fargo while Brown spoke.
“Our community is better when voices are heard, both those that are expressing great concerns and those that are expressing great ideas,” the mayor said. “The loudest of concerns recently involve our changing retail sector and what can the city do about it. In both the general public and local business owners, we’ve heard you loud and clear.”
That “destination” plan, he elaborated, means removing “bureaucratic obstacles” at Grand Forks City Hall. Brown didn’t elaborate what that meant beyond saying he had asked City Administrator Todd Feland to “realign” the city’s community development staff. Feland told the Herald that means directing those staffers to work more closely with the city’s semi-public Economic Development Corporation and developers.
The initiative also means putting together a menu of new and existing incentives for businesses here, plus, perhaps, citywide “incentive districts” and a plan to rehabilitate storefronts.
In his hourlong address, Brown also called on the Greater Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau to produce a “shop local, attend local” initiative. He urged residents to show up to events around town.
“Every one of us has the opportunity every single day to support a local business,” Brown said.
He also called for new unique experiences in Grand Forks, and said The Chamber of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks is best equipped to find them. Current “differentiators” like that are Choice Health and Fitness, and the Alerus Center complex, he said. Brown suggested renovating Town Square and called on the city’s Youth Commission to put together a “Legacy Project.”
The longtime mayor also said the city needs to explore access to health care, “social connections” such as the newly renovated Grand Forks library, ways to make it an “8-80’s community” – meaning a city for all ages – and more. Brown said the city too often settles for meeting the bare minimums of the Americans with Disabilities Act and should set the bar higher.
He also said he’d like to see the city, Grand Forks County and Grand Forks Park District work hand-in-hand with Grand Forks Public Schools as school district leaders figure out a long-term plan for their buildings.
“And just so everyone knows, you can also count me as a strong ‘yes’ to a future school district bond issue,” Brown said.
He said Grand Forks can be an epicenter for unmanned aircraft systems and a “growth center” for future digital innovation.
“Like John D. Odegard did 50 years ago, our time is now to plant the seeds that will grow into a world class ‘intelligent technology’ center, fueling artificial intelligence and data science solutions in the fields of health, energy and aerospace,” Brown said.
He said City Council President Dana Sande would help lead that effort.
“Picture this,” Brown said. “An innovation district, or tech campus, stretching out over downtown Grand Forks. Green spaces, park tables and sidewalks teeming with people walking, biking and sipping coffee as they head to their jobs that haven’t been invented yet, in corporate offices of high-tech businesses not yet conceived.”
Brown invited on stage Josh Riedy, the head of Airtonomy, a startup software company that hopes to eventually automate some of the work done by drones.
“This is really quite exciting,” Brown said to Riedy in a scripted back-and-forth. “How will this lead to more companies, more applications and more industries coming into the region?”
The company has received $50,000 apiece from the city and its economic development corporation, plus another potential $1 million from the state.
And what about the “billion dollar boom” Brown prophesied in his address last year?
“I know there was some initial skepticism of the ‘billion dollar’ number,” he said during the speech. “But new construction value in 2019 already reached $329 million, a third of a billion and over 70% higher than the last 10-year average. In fact, there’s a good chance we’ll have to increase the ‘billion’ dollar number in the next few years.”
“This place is special,” he said. “This place -- Grand Forks.”