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As state divvies up federal COVID money, Grand Forks seeing special session spending wins

All in all, local leaders say, it was a good week.

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The sun rises behind a water tower in Grand Forks. (Grand Forks Herald photo)
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Five whirlwind November days in Bismarck gave state legislators the time they needed to spend hundreds of millions in federal COVID funds. And now that all the spending is done, Grand Forks city leaders are tallying up the results.
There’s big money for a natural gas pipeline, potentially millions for local road and bridge construction, plus more for UND research and renovation. It all comes out of $1.1 billion in COVID spending — $700 million of which was spent on new initiatives that had not been allocated in this year’s winter session.

All in all, local leaders say, it was a good week.

The biggest item on the list: $150 million to support infrastructure for natural gas resources, including a gas pipeline that will link western oil fields with eastern communities. Gov. Doug Burgum said on Monday that $10 million of that sum is set aside for natural gas transport to Grand Forks County.
A release from Burgum’s office said a west-to-east natural gas pipeline “will help lift the ceiling on oil production in North Dakota by better utilizing the state’s abundant natural gas supplies, while also generating additional state tax revenue that supports the Legacy Fund and other state funds for schools, water projects and outdoor recreation.”
That announcement is critical for Grand Forks, which is in the final stages of wooing Fufeng Group, a China-based food additive producer considering a plant in the city that could consume up to 25 million bushels of corn per year.
RELATED: Gov. Doug Burgum, Fufeng Group leaders visit Grand Forks as city finalizes deal

There also is $317 million in funding for roads and bridges statewide that had already been allocated prior to the special session that leaders are touting anew.
RELATED: As state eyes federal COVID windfall, what’s coming to Grand Forks?

Barry Wilfahrt, CEO of the local Chamber of Commerce, said the money offers a critical chance for local leaders to pursue projects like an underpass under the railroad line at 42nd Avenue South and DeMers Avenue, a new bridge over the Red River or even a new Interstate 29 interchange. All three projects are local darlings that have been long-discussed but still haven’t gotten to the blueprint stage.

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“There are a number of projects like that where this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for elected boards to come together, work together and get a game plan to make them a reality,” Wilfahrt said.
City Administrator Todd Feland agreed that the funding is an encouraging opportunity for local projects, many of which might soon come to long-awaited fruition. The 42nd Avenue rail underpass, he said, might not be so far from breaking ground.
“I’m relatively confident on the 42nd and DeMers underpass. I anticipate that being in final design and construction within the next three years,” he said.

UND was also a big winner, with tens of millions of dollars in funding for airport expansion, campus renovations and research. The biggest prize: a $50 million sum that will help with the renovation of campus buildings like Merrifield Hall.
“This is really exciting news for the UND campus,” David Dodds, a UND spokesperson, told the Herald. “It's going to do a lot of great things for us – a lot of much-needed things.”

The Herald’s Adam Kurtz contributed to this report.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was corrected to clarify the state's expenditures on natural gas resources.

Barry Wilfahrt

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