When city leaders imagine the future of the Grand Forks Herald building, they see a key to the city’s future — a bustling building with space for tech startups, all of them leading Grand Forks’ economy into its next chapter.
And they talk about it with genuine excitement. In coming years, guests might see tech classrooms or spaces for companies to collaborate nestled in a space housing multiple startups. City Administrator Todd Feland, in sketching out a vision for the building, keeps returning to phrases like “high-tech” or “innovative.”
“(Guests) are going to walk in and see some great, open public spaces, with lots of energy, lots of activity, with people working together,” Feland said. “I know that’s hard to believe in these COVID times, but we’re going to get through these COVID times.”
The city’s gambit is that its investment in the Herald building, which it purchased in 2019, will pay big dividends with some renovation and smart marketing. It’s all the more urgent during the coronavirus pandemic, too — the retail sector that provided numerous local jobs continues crumbling at an even faster rate, and a hub for tech companies, local leaders hope, would transform the local job market, giving the economy steadier footing.
They just have to build it first. That process is likely to unfold over roughly the next year, with applications for grants coming back in coming months and construction theoretically beginning as soon as winter and finishing up as soon as the school year starts up in 2021.
Local leaders are already working to secure funding, and are in the midst of applying for $600,000 in federal funds — contingent on the community matching the amount. The city and UND both have given six-figure sums and local businesses teamed up to raise another $180,000 (a $30,000 sum each from Choice Bank, True North Equipment, Edgewood Research and Development, AE2S, Ideal Aerosmith and Midco). The local Economic Development Corporation has contributed $20,000.
It’s a substantial investment, one that comes a year after purchase of the building for more than $2.8 million as portions of it sit empty. The space is occupied now by the Herald and the local Economic Development Corporation, with space also rented by the local school district but sitting vacant amid the coronavirus pandemic. Ryan Brooks, a city planning and development official, said those three tenants are generating an average of nearly $13,000 a month (the Herald’s share is roughly $6,300, the school district’s $3,600 and the EDC slightly more than $3,000, all for spaces of varying size).
And after all, why wouldn’t companies pick Fargo or Minneapolis or Seattle? Mayor Brandon Bochenski argues that the region is already home to Grand Sky tech park, which has drawn tech companies like Northrup Grumman and General Atomics.
“We have a great university, a great aerospace program,” Bochenski said. “This is a tech center in the drone business to begin with. ... I think people are already seeing that. Now it’s just expounding on that.”
There is historical echo in the efforts to build out the Herald building. Grand Forks is dotted with city-owned buildings built after the Flood of 1997, often with the help of disaster relief funds, to spur the local economy. Richards points out that local leaders would like to use millions of coronavirus relief dollars to refit the Herald space.
“This is a disaster that's very similar to the flood,” Richards said, “and completely different from others.”
Mark Schill, a consultant with Praxis Strategy Group, has been working with the local Chamber of Commerce to track consumer behavior during the pandemic. Using anonymized cell phone data, he’s found that, as of June 18, Grand Forks’ foot traffic was down 21% against 2019 numbers — a substantial decline, but better than the national average of 26%. Malls, restaurants and hotels are among the hardest hit.
And news this week came that the Eddie Bauer store at the Columbia Mall was served with an eviction notice June 15 — an apparent casualty of the coronavirus crisis, although neither the store nor mall managers would discuss the move in detail.
“I think the pandemic, in my opinion, just shortened the length of time to get to the new economy, if you look at retail and other (sectors),” Feland said. “We thought it was going to happen at five years. It’s probably going to happen in a year, or is happening in (front of) of our eyes right now.”