Coronavirus has interrupted East Grand Forks’ positive momentum, Mayor Steve Gander said Wednesday.
But the mayor’s annual State of the City address characterized the city as one that is – or will be – poised to get back to normal after the COVID-19 “storm” passes.
“I believe that very soon we’ll find that the necessary ingredients for a strong region, and a strong country, are still abundant,” Gander said in a live virtual address. “I believe we will be pleasantly surprised the good stuff is still here.”
Gander pointed to what he said are “plentiful” job opportunities on both sides of the Red River, higher-than-average wages and a growing population.
“We stand at a pivotal time for East Grand Forks, for our region, and for our nation. Hanging in the balance is the American way of life,” Gander intoned. “It is my hope that each of us is prepared to give our utmost effort to get back to the life we love. In so doing, we will also be enriching the lives of those around us.”
Gander’s address was punctuated by 10 prerecorded talks with city department heads, other civic leaders, and his pastor, all done under the pretext of a chance run-in with the mayor as he biked through town.
Parks and Rec Superintendent Reid Huttunen outlined hoped-for improvements to Stauss Park and other city facilities, including high-profile plans to revamp the city’s aging ice arenas, for instance.
“We’ll be back,” Gander said of the park department’s summer offerings. “Full bore.”
Police Chief Mike Hedlund said the city is aggressively pursuing drug dealers and chatted with Gander about a recent fishing trip to Red Lake. Public Works Director Jason Stordahl, who joked that he was poised to toss a massive tree trunk into the nearby river when approached by the mayor and his camera, went over the city’s flood protection efforts earlier this spring, and so on.
Gander did not immediately return a Herald call on Wednesday afternoon about the provenance of the wages and population claims he made, but federal and state data indicate he is correct.
The United States Census Bureau and an estimate from Minnesota State Demographic Center indicate East Grand Forks’ population has risen from 8,601 in 2010 to an estimated 8,875 in 2018 – a 3.1% increase. And the federal Social Security Administration pegged the average wage nationwide at $52,145 in 2018, and a 2018 survey by the Census Bureau concluded that the average wage in the Grand Forks metropolitan statistical area, which includes both of the Grand Cities, was $54,659 – 4.8% higher.
In his address, Gander pointed to a resolution City Council members approved the night before his speech that urges Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz to “accelerate the timeline” to reopen businesses, churches, and other socially and economically vital institutions in the city.
“This virus does not behave the same in East Grand Forks as it does in downtown Minneapolis,” Gander said, “The policy regarding reopening should be customized to reflect this difference, rather than trying to use a one-size-fits-all approach across the state.”
Grand Forks businesses – restaurants and bars in particular – haven’t been closed as dramatically as East Grand Forks ones. Staff on the North Dakota side of the river can serve alcohol alongside delivery orders and, under a “smart restart” plan put forward by North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, have been able to reopen somewhat to dine-in service. Meanwhile, East Grand Forks businesses can serve alcohol alongside carryout – not delivery – orders, but were still closed entirely to foot traffic on Wednesday.
Gander said Wednesday that East Grand Forks businesses deserve to have the same opportunity to serve their customers – a wish that was partly granted later in the day by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, who on Wednesday outlined a plan to gradually reopen bars, restaurants and other businesses statewide. That means restaurants can open to outdoor seating next month.
The mayor’s address was streamed over the internet by HB Sound and Light, a Grand Forks-based A/V and events company.