In some ways, East Grand Forks Mayor Steve Gander said Thursday, rebuilding after the 1997 flood was easier than rebuilding after COVID-19: flood damage is more tangible, and repairing it produces more tangible results, than the pandemic's damage or the work to rebuild after it.
“The damage of COVID is more economic and it’s more in consumer confidence and habits,” Gander said, “but I think the road to recovery is exactly the same: you do what you know is right, you care for the needs of others, and you have some fun doing it.”
But mentions of the virus weren’t as prevalent at the mayor's 2021 State of the City address, which he delivered Thursday afternoon at the East Grand Forks Civic Center, noting happily that, unlike his 2020 address at the outset of the epidemiological “storm,” this year’s speech had an in-person audience.
The meat and potatoes of his address was a 10-point list of the city’s plans for the coming year that Gander, East Grand Forks City Council members, and city hall staff came up with earlier this year.
At the top of that list is the city’s long-running hope to revamp its two aging ice arenas and some baseball diamonds. Parks and Recreation Superintendent Reid Huttunen outlined the problems at those buildings, as well as the city’s work to put together and refine an approximate budget for their repair. The most recent estimate for that work came in at $13.42 million to upgrade the fields at Stauss Park, replace the ice plants at the Civic Center and the VFW Memorial Arena, rebuild their parking lots, and make both comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The sales tax that would presumably pay for a large chunk of that tab needs to be approved by Minnesota legislators, then City Council members, then East Grand Forks voters, but state lawmakers shifted their focus to the pandemic last spring, which means the first of those three votes won’t happen until next year. The citywide referendum that would finalize the new tax is tentatively planned for the November 2022 general election.
But the city is also looking to solicit private donations, and Huttunen noted Thursday that $30,000 the city won in a “Kraft Hockeyville” promotion would go toward the arenas’ eventual renovations, as would the $143,750 grant it won via the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission’s “Mighty Ducks” program. The city has also hired a consultant – Atlanta-based Convergent Nonprofit Solutions – to help with a donation drive for the parks and rec reworks.
“Our goal is to complete these investments with as limited of a tax impact as possible in our community,” Huttunen said.
The city’s second goal, Gander said, is building two southside bridges over the Red River, claiming that there is a growing consensus for two bridges rather than one. The first: a “neighborhood” bridge that connects Grand Forks and East Grand Forks’ southern areas. The second: a bridge much farther south at Merrifield Road that would help commercial and agricultural traffic bypass the cities’ centers.
“Our friends from Grand Forks might say this is the first location,” Gander said of a Merrifield bridge.
Grand Forks leaders recently asked Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., for earmark funding for several infrastructure projects there, including a south-end bridge at an unspecified location. Earlier this month, East Grand Forks City Council members approved a resolution asking for the same type of funding for the city’s share of a south-end bridge.
East Grand Forks’ third goal, Gander said, is fixing up its streets. The city is working to fix the intersection of 20th Street and Fifth Avenue, which has fallen into disrepair while the city government and residents there balk at their shares of a repair bill, Gander said. The city is trying to do the same to a portion of 10th Street that’s in similar straits. City Council members recently voted to use 2022 federal subtarget funding to install a roundabout on Bygland Road at the expense of a 10th street rebuild.
Gander moved relatively swiftly through the city’s seven remaining goals, which are:
- Helping businesses. Gander noted that Grand Trailer Sales has taken over the former site of a Dollar Tree store. The city also hopes to expand its industrial park on the eastern side of town.
- Keeping the city’s financial reserves topped off. The money in the city’s savings account, so to speak, has generally met or exceeded the policy set by council members in 2011 that calls for its reserves to equal 35-50% of its budgeted expenses.
- Improve Bygland Road. That, Gander said, means more pedestrian safety measures at the road’s intersection with 13th Street Southeast, plus, presumably, the recently approved roundabout.
- Promote “Entry-level” housing. However, a nationwide premium on building materials made Gander pessimistic about the chances of building more affordable housing in 2021.
- Maintain and enhance East Grand Forks and Grand Forks’ Greenway, which includes repairing some of the trails there, eventually installing a kayak launch on the Red Lake River. It also would include pushing the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to make good on a funding promise that city officials claim was made years ago to pay for a new boat launch on the Red River.
- Help businesses hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Gander said this has already happened via a series of publicly funded business aid programs administered by the city and Polk County earlier this year and late last year.
- Keep the city’s share of Minnesota’s Local Government Aid funding at current levels. A state program enacted by the Legislature hands out money to relatively small city governments in an effort to keep local property taxes low. Gander and other East Grand Forks officials have noted that their “LGA” appropriation has dropped over the past few years. The state uses a formula for the aid program that takes into account the average age of the city’s housing stock – older housing means more money – and Eastside leaders feel the formula punishes them unfairly because the 1997 flood wiped out a swath of old houses, raising the age of the city’s average house up and therefore producing less money via the state formula. “Let’s just keep the LGA at the fair level where it should be,” Gander said.
But his speech wasn’t just a rote list of civic priorities. On balance, Gander’s State of the City addresses have generally been more lighthearted and less formal than the speeches of his counterparts across the Red River. Woven into Gander's speech last year was video of a bike ride along the Greenway during which Gander, tongue firmly in cheek, came across a series of city leaders who happened to be ready to expound on their work. His 2021 address was peppered with casual on-camera interviews with retailers, restaurateurs, and movie theater owners who talked up their businesses and their tentative plans for expansion as the virus wanes.
The final shot in that video was Gander in a theater seat at the River Cinema, flanked by Chamber of Commerce CEO Barry Wilfahrt and Chamber of Commerce Board Chairman Dave Zavoral, munching on popcorn as if a movie were playing.
“Leading a normal life,” a voiceover growled as dramatic music played in the background. “Coming soon.”