The candidates for Grand Forks mayor all agree: Grand Forks has room to grow, and City Hall can help.
But they don’t all agree on how the city should get there. One prevailing philosophy for city growth, especially popular in North Dakota in recent years, has been to build a thriving downtown center — something that can shape the city’s identity and attract new residents and workers. That’s just the beginning of the debate for this year’s mayoral ballot, though.
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 all four what role downtown plays in their political imagination, and how involved City Hall should be in trying to grow and shape it. Here’s what they said:
Bochenski, a real estate agent and developer, acknowledged the downtown area’s importance as the town’s “lifeblood.”
“But we’re kind of trying to force it to be that at the expense of the rest of the city,” he argued.
An important part of Bochenski’s philosophy is how he sees interest in moving to Grand Forks. It doesn’t start with an interest in the downtown area, he said, but with opportunity.
“I think people need a job and a place that they can afford to live before they need things to do downtown and sort of the entertainment side,” he said. “Just a difference in ideas of why people move to a certain town.”
That’s why Bochenski’s vision for the city has it offering limited tax breaks for development outside the downtown area, along places like Washington Street and Columbia Road, or along Gateway Avenue and at the Columbia Mall. Although the city has pursued or is weighing incentives for development in many of those places, Bochenski would like to see more.
“Incentives aren’t something that I love, but that’s just where we’re at now,” he said. “And especially as our city, we’re not growing fast enough. We’re not booming economically … (and) to boost that, I think we need to give some of those incentives, and once the economy is going and the population is growing we don’t have to offer those as freely anymore.”
David, a former associate director of UND’s honor’s program and a city workforce and immigration staffer, described downtown as an important part of the community — not just because development there is a good place to build big and grow the tax base, but because downtown districts can be a kind of local cultural melting pot.
“You have people working in finance, you have artists, people in government, college students, entrepreneurs — you get a little bit of everybody in one space, and that makes a really fertile ground for everybody,” she said. “Both for ideas that are generated as well as for revenue itself, and so I tend to be a big supporter of downtowns in general.”
David stresses that private activity, and private investment, is “critical” for downtown success. But the spirit of David’s campaign is to build a highly responsive local government by including as many residents — from as many backgrounds — in the public conversation as she can.
So, when asked about how she would wield city tax incentives, her answer is more or less in line with the rest of her message: build a smart policy.
“If one area (of the city) really needs that support at a particular time, that doesn’t mean that’s always the area that’s going to need that support,” she said. She also wonders “...how can we hook (those tax incentives) into concerns that we might have about things like poverty rates in Grand Forks, and making sure that the businesses getting (those deals) are also at the table and helping to resolve some of these broader community issues with employment?”
Incumbent mayor Mike Brown has long been a proponent of building a more “vibrant” community, and that philosophy runs parallel to his thoughts on downtown Grand Forks, which he framed as the “beating heart” of the city — one that’s pumping best when it’s humming with public life.
Plus, he argued, more urban density downtown means that the city’s services are more efficiently provided right where there’s growing interest in settling down and building a career — instead of spread over costly expansions on the city’s fringes.
“I think we’re seeing a shift, where people want to live downtown,” he said, pointing out new developments like the forthcoming Hugo’s grocery store at Fifth Street and DeMers Avenue, which is expected to open with an Alerus bank branch and nearly 80 apartments. “And that’s why it’s so important that the city be anticipating that, because that’s going to be the future.”
The mayor also ticked off a few important items in City Hall’s toolkit, remembering city funds that kick-started the Downtown Development Association as well as limited tax breaks for new developments. The latter, he said, are an investment in the community that pay big dividends over time.
Brown argued, too, that interest in helping downtown is well-placed — and doesn’t come at the expense of elsewhere in the city.
“We focus on the Near North Neighborhood and how we make that better — how do we fix the curbs or the streets? And they fix their homes, they fix their neighborhoods,” he said. “And you know, I like going to the farmers’ market. I like going downtown. I like to have the HollyDazzle parade. And then (success downtown) reaches out to the whole community.”
Bakken, a former member of the City Council, said the downtown in its current form is both a shadow of its former self — diminished by the advent of the shopping mall — and appears built to capacity, with limited parking availability.
"You can only do so much,” he said of policy downtown. “Let's face it: the people of Grand Forks like to pull up to a private business and park, and you can't do that downtown."
Bakken said he’s open to using limited city tax breaks to help develop the downtown area, but he’s skeptical of the idea more generally, arguing that there’s little room for downtown expansion and that new residents are after jobs and opportunity — not a flashy downtown.
"We have let our city economy just about disappear,” Bakken said, also referencing reductions in other businesses, including the WDAZ television station and the Herald, which sold its building to the city and now rents space there. “We're just about a nothing up here. We're going to have to fix that, but the first thing you're going to have to fix is the pandemic."