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Grand Sky an 'emerging strength' with statewide significance

Grand Forks is increasingly fashioning itself as an aerospace hub, with UND’s academic programs, Grand Forks Air Force Base’s missions and now Grand Sky’s enterprises to support it.

Tom Swoyer at Legislature 2023b.jpg
Tom Swoyer, president of Grand Sky, speaks at a legislative committee meeting on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2022, in Bismarck.
Jeremy Turley/Forum Communications
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GRAND FORKS – In 2015, on a small patch of land near the edge of Grand Forks Air Force Base, Tom Swoyer was ready to break ground on Grand Sky — the business park for unmanned aircraft tech. To a gathered crowd full of local and visiting officials, he recalled a simple question that had followed the idea through its early development: “Why not?”

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"Why not here? Why not now? Why not this idea?" he said, crediting the success of the project to everyone who had answered it with their support.

More than seven years later, that optimism has been rewarded with major tenants and big investments, and with a community that often sees Grand Sky as a window into its future. The project, which now houses General Atomics and Northrup Grumman, is often referenced by local leaders as a paragon for commercial success — a comparison point when they’re speculating about the best-case scenarios for other ventures.

“We’re at the front end of this development at Grand Sky,” Grand Forks City Administrator Todd Feland said. In coming decades, he predicts significant growth – not just at the business park, but in startups and other unmanned-aircraft tech ventures in the area. “I think it’s an emerging strength, but several years from now it’s only going to be much stronger.”

Grand Forks is increasingly fashioning itself as an aerospace hub, with UND’s academic programs, Grand Forks Air Force Base’s missions and now Grand Sky’s enterprises to support it.

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The community’s enthusiasm for that future will be on full display on Thursday, Jan. 26, as the local Chamber of Commerce hosts its annual dinner at the Alerus Center. Remarks from three aerospace leaders are slated for the evening: Derek Tournear, director of the Space Development Agency; George Rumford, the director of the Department of Defense’s Test Resource Management Center; and Swoyer, president and partner at Grand Sky.

Chamber CEO and President Barry Wilfahrt said the evening is a chance to celebrate the community’s success.

“It's a celebration of what we've got,” Wilfahrt said, pointing out the “bright spot” that Grand Sky’s development has been for the community.

But it’s also a timely showcase of Grand Forks’ development, with legislators in Bismarck mulling funding for Grand Sky — specifically, a request for $22 million that won only $7 million in Gov. Doug Burgum’s budget recommendations (and which represents only a portion of unmanned aircraft system funding that legislators will weigh).

Swoyer, who traveled this week to Bismarck to testify before legislative appropriators, said he’s grateful to the state for all of its past funding. In a show of diplomacy, said he’d be grateful for $7 million if that’s what legislators allocate.

But he explained that the $22 million ask is twofold: $12 million for expanding the “beachfront,” where hangars house aircraft that can access the nearby runway. Another $10 million, he said, is for infrastructure – “roads, electric, gas, fiber optics, the fundamental utilities that are in the ground.”

Those are both important components, he said, for growing Grand Sky and giving it a brighter future.

“Grand Sky can sustain itself right now financially, but can't really grow by itself right now,” Swoyer said. “... I’m not asking, and the county’s not asking, for the Legislature to fund the businesses at Grand Sky. We’re asking for help with the tools that let us build Grand Sky.”

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Grand Sky has been an important win for the local economy, but its promise takes on significant importance in light of the city’s lagging growth. While Fargo in particular has grown its civilian labor force about 60% since January 1993, per Bureau of Labor figures, Grand Forks has grown only about 5% .

One of the key challenges in past decades was mission realignment at the air base. Bombers and warheads left over the years and drones arrived, pivoting the marquee technology and dramatically shifting the number of local military personnel. For Feland, Grand Sky’s growth becomes even more dramatic in context.

“It’s one of a kind,” he said. “I don’t think anybody would have predicted the success it’s had if you would have looked in the mid-2000s.”

As a result, aerospace and unmanned aircraft systems have become premier industries for Grand Forks – and potentially an engine to help bring parity with other cities.

“We hope that when airmen and their families are transitioning out (of military service) that they can find a job at Grand Sky to stay here in the community,” said Tom Ford, Grand Forks County’s director of administration. “We’re looking to create further jobs, to bring people from outside the area, to keep UND graduate students here.”

‘Separate factor’

The Grand Sky project is just down a stretch of highway from the potential future site of a corn-milling plant from China-based Fufeng Group. Over the past year, that proposed plant sparked extraordinary debate in northern Grand Forks — most pointedly about what the plant’s proximity to Grand Forks Air Force Base could mean to U.S. military interests.

No evidence has emerged confirming that Fufeng Group’s plant will be a vector for espionage but the issue has gotten attention from the state’s two U.S. senators. In August, Sen. John Hoeven told the Herald that he and Sen. Kevin Cramer are concerned about the project.

“Both Kevin and I have advised (the city) that we think that because of security concerns, it’d be better to find some other company to work with on the ag part,” Hoeven said.

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After an FBI briefing on Chinese agricultural investment, multiple city leaders said they had no concerns about Fufeng’s development; a lengthy review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States found the body had no jurisdiction over the matter .

RELATED: After CFIUS announcement on Fufeng project, everyone – foes and proponents alike – waiting for next steps

The perception of Fufeng as a threat has remained, rattling some observers, including Grand Sky tenant General Atomics .

Feland said local leaders need to be “very thoughtful” about ongoing development, but downplayed concerns that Fufeng’s development might be in tension with success in the unmanned aircraft sector.

“We’ve always said our goal with the Fufeng project is it will not take from other institutions,” Feland said.

State Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Grand Forks, said that he sees Fufeng Group as a “separate factor” from appropriations questions. He also said that he expects appropriations to see a higher volume and value of funding requests as the biennium likely leaves the state with extra cash.

“I’m not going to make any predictions” on funding levels for Grand Sky, Sanford said. “But I do think that one of the realities that is there is the fact that we have made a significant investment, it has proven to be solid, and so we know we’re working with a good partner.”

This year’s budgetary process unfolds not just as economic headwinds buffet the economy, but as legislators weigh surplus funds – potentially worth $3 billion by the end of the ongoing two-year budget cycle, which concludes this summer. Rising sales and oil tax revenues have propelled the Legislature into a strong position.

State Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, said the easiest years to write and pass a budget are when money is tight, and when everyone knows not to ask for more.

“When everyone understands there’s nothing left, that we’re digging through the couch cushions to find every last nickel just to get out of here with a zero balance,” Mock said.

This year is far from lean. But Mock called $7 million in funding the “bare minimum” for Grand Sky, and said he’d expect an allocation “closer” to the $22 million figure.

“This is not a Grand Forks thing, but in fact, some of the biggest champions of the industry are legislators outside of the northeast corner of North Dakota. So I’m cautiously optimistic and it’s certainly a valuable investment for our entire region.”

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Sam Easter is a freelance reporter who has been a regular contributor to the Herald since 2019. He covers a variety of topics, including government and politics.

In 2015, he joined the Herald’s staff as City Hall reporter, covering North Dakota politics at all levels and conducting Herald investigations through early 2018, when he began his freelancing career.

Easter can be reached at samkweaster@gmail.com or via Twitter via @samkweaster.
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More than a year after it was first announced, the council on Monday voted 5-0 to move away from the Fufeng project. Council members Kyle Kvamme and Tricia Lunski did not attend the meeting.
The meeting was streamed online on Monday