What’s the biggest challenge facing Grand Forks? Are property taxes too high? How can the city government attract – or retain – retail business as that industry shrinks across the country?
Candidates for Grand Forks mayor found a modest amount of common ground within relatively broad questions like those on Wednesday at a virtual forum organized by the Grand Forks and East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce. Art Bakken, Brandon Bochenski, Mike Brown and Robin David all participated in the event, held online via Zoom. Brown is the incumbent.
The election is June 9 – to be conducted via mailed ballots due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Two of the candidates indicated that poverty was one of the city’s biggest challenges, three indicated that property taxes are more or less in line with where they ought to be, and two indicated that they wouldn’t change much about the city’s relationship with Grand Forks Air Force Base.
But they each offered a different answer when asked about retail challenges, which have been an increasingly big fly in the Grand Cities’ ointment – retail outlet after retail outlet closed even before the outbreak pushed the U.S. economy into a downturn.
David, a workforce and immigration staffer at the city who has campaigned on a hyper-collaborative style of governance, pointed to her plans to assemble a “retail task force” that would put together plans the city could enact to buoy struggling brick-and-mortar stores.
“And then we work with council, we work with local leaders to see which of those can be implemented,” David said. “And we move swiftly.”
Bochenski, a single-family home developer who said he hopes to lower city property taxes, indicated the solution is economic growth and wage growth.
“If you have money left over after you pay for housing,” he said, “you can demand more goods and services and retail will take care of itself. And also having population growth adds customers to all these businesses.”
Brown, the city’s longtime mayor, has repeatedly posited “experiential” malls as an economic way forward.
“We have to adapt to this new future,” he said. “If you’re investing in bricks and mortar, you’re investing in a dinosaur.”
And Bakken, a former Grand Forks City Council member who’s waging a write-in campaign and worries that the city is becoming a bedroom community for larger ones such as Fargo, said the city needs to figure out why Canadian tourists haven’t driven south to patronize area businesses. He attributed part of that to the rise of online shopping and a less-than-ideal rate of exchange between U.S. and Canadian dollars, which, for years, has floated just below the threshold that typically attracts tourists here from north of the border.
“The other part is we have to become a destination city again and have a reason for them to stop here rather than driving down to Fargo. Everybody says malls are dead, but West Acres Mall is booming,” Bakken said, referring to the Fargo shopping center.
Candidates’ answers hewed more closely to one another on other questions: Brown said the city was “right about where we should be,” property tax-wise, David said the city needs to “hold the line” on them, and Bakken suggested that they couldn’t feasibly be reduced any further unless property values fell concurrently because, he predicts, the virus will make the city hard-up for cash. Bochenski said residents think the city’s property taxes are too high and suggested the city work with other taxing entities to lower them across the board.
And one of the city’s foremost problems, other than the coronavirus, is poverty, he argued.
“We need to get more people into homes,” Bochenski said. “And that’s lowering and making houses more affordable. It’s more affordable houses and it’s raising wages.”
He prescribed lower taxes, making the city more “business friendly,” and selling publicly held buildings like the Corporate Centers in downtown Grand Forks, which, at least pre-coronavirus, city staff were already working to do.
David also said she felt poverty is the city’s biggest challenge because it’s a growing one, even before the virus began to take an economic toll. But, she said, it’s one piece of a larger picture.
She stressed the importance of affordable housing, which she characterized as a broader economic issue because it could hinder schools’ and business’ ability to hold on to workers who might leave town for somewhere cheaper. She suggested incentivizing the construction or development of more of it.
“We need to move forward on that,” David said, referring to the city’s relative lack of cheap housing. “Because that’s created too much of a difficulty for people.”
Brown said the city’s greatest challenge is balancing economic health and physical health.
The Chamber's forum was the third chance for mayoral candidates here to make their case to voters generally. The Greater Grand Forks Young Professionals hosted a forum in late April and the Herald hosted a debate last week.
The Chamber's forum can be viewed below. It begins with the Grand Forks School Board candidates forum followed by the mayoral candidates at approximately the 1:01:20 mark.