The same questions — and the same urgent mission — has been on Keith Lund’s mind for years. What’s the next big business to arrive in Grand Forks? And how can the city bring it here?
Lund, president and CEO of Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corporation, is one of the top local leaders tasked with answering those questions. And in recent years, there have been some big successes: Northrump Grumman, General Atomics and Red River BioRefinery all have arrived in Grand Forks in the last decade, boosting local jobs and growing the regional economy.
The pandemic changed that. For months, Lund recalls, many companies began pulling back, hesitating to spend capital in a world rocked by COVID-19.
“If something was ready to begin or significantly planned, those things happened,” Lund said. “But really, anything that wasn't ready to execute sort of stalled for a period of time — maybe six months.”
That period is over now, Lund said, and has been for a while. By the end of last year, Lund said, there was a broad recognition that big business expansion — locally and from elsewhere in the country — was starting up again. Businesses might have been wary to spend capital for a short while, but sitting out an entire year just wasn’t going to be feasible.
“That's where, from our standpoint, the recognition of — ‘Wait a minute, we just can't sit on the sideline. We need to keep moving forward’ — came,” Lund said.
So Grand Forks’ search for new big business is up and running again. This is where the story becomes more difficult to tell, because Lund and other city officials like to keep quiet about these things. Maybe the deal clicks, the business arrives, and there’s all the usual fanfare; maybe it falls through.
But there are changes happening right now pivoting Grand Forks to a more business-friendly future. The City Council, at the urging of Minnkota Power Cooperative, earlier this month changed its franchise fee structure for electricity — essentially creating a local price break for consumers of very high amounts.
City Administrator Todd Feland, discussing the shift earlier this month, said it could help bring a data center to the city. Speaking this week, he said there’s really no worries that other city utilities might limit an ability to bring larger businesses to the area.
“Gas and water and those sorts of things will not be a limiting factor in our community,” Feland said of any prospective businesses. Often, he said, the city’s work is focused on how best to partner with outside groups — like the state, for example — to ensure businesses have the resources they need.
The search for new businesses is always important, but is especially pressing in a city that has had tepid workforce growth, compared to other North Dakota cities, over the last 20 years. According to federal statistics, Grand Forks’ regional civilian labor force sits at about 54,000, where it was in the mid-1990s. Over the same time period, the Fargo and Bismarck regions have seen significant growth.
That’s been a pressing issue for years. And now, post-pandemic, the future of the economy has pressing, new, immediate needs, too — sitting right alongside high hopes for big new business.
“Right now, the big post-pandemic question for Grand Forks that I get asked every single day is, ‘When is the Canadian border going to open?’ Our Canadian friends are a giant part of our hospitality and retail customer base,” said Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the local Chamber. “How soon that opens is of extreme interest … in particular (for) restaurants, hotels, all of our events venues. A lot of their business is driven by the Canadian border being open.”
Economic leaders like Lund strike a note of optimism amid all the pandemic gloom, though. The local manufacturing sector has seen promising recent growth, he said. And he said local leaders are pursuing business leads all the time — especially in a changing, post-pandemic world.
After all — why shouldn’t Grand Forks play host to the data centers of the future?
“Just how many times you've been on Zoom now versus a year ago is just really case in point,” Lund said. “And people are using electronic means to do commerce. ... And so there's a greater need for data processing, data storage, data dissemination, and the opportunities now, and we think that they're going to grow in the future.”