Grand Forks, nearing the end of a long year that simply will not let up, got a bit of positive news this month: a good bond rating.
For anyone without the head for city finance, that probably doesn’t mean much. But city leaders hail it as a vote of confidence in the city’s stability, despite a whirlwind year that’s been wracked by pandemic and the constant threat of economic shutdown.
“What we always knew back in March is that with this ongoing pandemic moving forward, we couldn’t afford to have two significant disasters at a time,” City Administrator Todd Feland said. “So we really have worked to make sure that we kept the eye on the pandemic as well as managing the city day to day.”
But, analysts warn, there’s still a ways to go. Grand Forks has seen the most significant economic damage in the hospitality sector — hotels and restaurants and the like — but the longer the pandemic wears on, the more likely that damage is to spread. And with case counts rising, and no second-round federal stimulus in sight, it’s still unclear what the winter could mean for the city’s economic future.
“Grand Forks looks, generally, better than we would have expected,” said Mark Schill, a local consultant with Praxis Strategy Group. “And it compares very well to other metropolitan areas in the surrounding region. It's hard to say (what happens), because, again, with this latest swing of the virus, there's going to be some more economic damage."
The new bond rating was issued by Moody’s, the New York City financial firm, and the report detailing the rating gives Grand Forks a lot of reason for optimism. The “Aa2” credit rating is the third-highest it can give on scale of about 20 such ratings, and it’s the same rating city bonds have been getting from the credit agency for years.
But coming now, in the midst of a global pandemic, it’s read as a sign that Grand Forks is on stable financial footing — owing, according to the Moody’s report, largely to a strong tax base and economy anchored by Altru Health System, Grand Forks Air Force Base and the University of North Dakota.
And the city’s sales tax data has shown a remarkably steady income stream this year, too, an indication that retail in Grand Forks hasn’t been as disrupted as had been previously feared. As of October, the city was running about 4.12% ahead on its year-to-date sales tax collections.
That’s a good number. But the city started the year running much further ahead of 2019 figures, and it’s not clear how much longer damage to the hospitality industry will stay relatively limited to that sector.
Put differently: how long until suffering restaurants lead to suffering restaurant suppliers?
“I think what we're seeing is that (damage is) taking time to spread to other areas,” said UND economist David Flynn. “I think there's an enormous risk that sole proprietorships and similar arrangements that are running into trouble are going to create problems along their supply chain — because they'll be a disruptive force if they're going under, if they're having problems with employee levels.”
“We're lucky,” he added. “Let's put it that way."
There’s also the question of what happens when North Dakota legislators meet on budgets next year. Given the huge slashes in oil revenue, what happens to big economic engines that depend on state funding, like UND? Observers like Schill aren’t so sure. And even without the Legislature making big spending decisions, there’s still the question of how many students are on campus next year, if the virus continues to worsen.
The intense rate of infection in North Dakota is also bringing back a difficult balancing act that state and local governments have had to play — of balancing business interests and commerce against the public health sensibilities that would close them down. Schill points out that, especially with another round of federal stimulus still waiting for congressional approval, this next round of shutdowns could look much different than the last.
“We know that businesses in our region garnered a higher share of PPP loans than many other parts of the country,” Schill wrote in an email, referring to a pandemic payment program designed to protect jobs. “There’s a good argument to be made that the federal stimulus monies helped ameliorate the initial economic impact. Looking forward, the lack of a current federal stimulus program to address this current wave of infection is a major economic wild card.”
For now, though, city leaders are happy with the nod from Moody’s — a tangible, if potentially fleeting, show of the city’s financial strength.
“I think, seeing some of our growth in manufacturing, even despite this time, has been helpful too,” Mayor Brandon Bochenski said, noting interest from developers and saying he foresees a likely property tax cut. “I think they saw stability here in Grand Forks. … I see a lot of positives on the economy, for sure.