What a difference a year makes.
Just 12 months ago, Grand Forks and the rest of North Dakota stood on the edge of what looked like a terrible precipice. The economy seemed like it might crumble, and oil revenues looked ready to plunge. The life-and-death stakes of the virus were bad enough, but much of the state was looking at the possibility of economic ruin.
One year later, only some of those fears have come to pass. The toll the virus has taken on public health has been sobering, with North Dakota leading the nation in cases per capita. And the hospitality industry is still fighting its way back to normal after a bruising year.
But billions of dollars in COVID stimulus are now arriving in the state just as oil revenues perk up, and as President Joe Biden begins campaigning for support on an infrastructure plan. Many observers see enormous potential for Grand Forks, just one short year after contemplating the worst.
“I view this as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in major infrastructure projects that will position Grand Forks for future growth,” said Barry Wilfahrt, who heads the local Chamber of Commerce. He wonders about the possibility of a new south-end bridge across the Red River, or a new underpass at 42nd Street and DeMers Avenue, both of which are projects local leaders have spoken about for years. “There are going to have to be tough decisions in terms of where those investments go, but there's certainly an opportunity for that discussion."
For now, though, those big hopes are still just that — hopes, without the significant funding that Grand Forks leaders are still hoping for to kick big projects into motion. The state Senate passed a widely touted $680 million bonding bill on Thursday afternoon, but it isn’t anywhere near as big as the billion-plus package they thought they might get at the beginning of the session.
Both Wilfahrt and City Administrator Todd Feland say that’s OK — there’s still more funding on its way.
"What our hope is, is that with some of the incoming federal stimulus funds, that we can build back to that (billion-plus) number with different funding,” Feland said. He insisted city leaders are feeling optimistic. “We know more is to come.”
Already, money is arriving in North Dakota. The city of Grand Forks already has received about $11.3 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan — President Joe Biden’s latest COVID relief package — but much will depend on how state officials decide to allocate a much greater pile of federal stimulus dollars.
State Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He said the sudden rush of money is reminiscent of the 1980s, when voters approved a measure on oil tax money. Soon after, he recalled, oil crashed.
But at least on the money available today, Holmberg is bullish. There’s more than $2 billion in federal funds headed toward the state, even if there are concerns about drought and about Biden’s energy policy.
"Tomorrow's another day,” he said. “Period.”
Feland underscored that he’s pleased to see how the community has held up under the stresses of COVID.
“If you were sitting here in March or April of last year, there were dire warnings that this could be a huge downside both on the public health side and on the economic side,” he said. “Really, we've come through this pretty well."