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Northern Air’s big plans help launch new Grand Forks loan program

It’s an ambitious project, with potential to not only boost interest in Northern Air, but the city as a whole. The kart track and the mini-golf course are likely summer projects, opening by the fall.

Northern Air.jpg
Bryan Lee, co-owner of Northern Air in south Grand Forks, will take advantage of a new city loan program to add a go-kart racing track to the facility that is set to boost experiential activities in the community.
Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald
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Bryan Lee is dreaming big at Northern Air, where he is planning millions of dollars in changes.

Northern Air has been in the news since 2013, when it opened at the former Center Court Fitness Center space near Washington Street and 32nd Avenue South, boasting 10,000 square feet of trampolines, with airborne dodgeball and basketball included. Today’s Northern Air has laser tag, an arcade, a virtual reality station and — one of its more recent additions — an ax-throwing station.

Now Lee is aiming higher, with plans in motion for about $5 million in improvements that will make it something like the national chain Dave and Busters — plus a little extra. That includes a new mini-golf course, a restaurant, interior remodeling and perhaps the biggest new development of all: 1,072-foot multi-level indoor go-kart track.

“It’s going to be state-of-the-art electric go-karts, with the capability that I can hit a button, and I can have a group of 6- or 7-year-olds going 10 miles an hour,” he said. “I can have the next older group, set it a little higher, all the way up to helmets and racing for adults.”

It’s an ambitious project, with potential to not only boost interest in Northern Air, but the city as a whole. The kart track and the mini-golf course are likely summer projects, he said, opening by the fall.

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Northern Air rendering.JPG
An artist's rendering of a proposed go-kart track at Northern Air in Grand Forks.
Submitted

“What we’re going to create is truly a destination place,” he said. “We currently draw from quite a ways away. That’s going to just continue to help Grand Forks to be a spot where people want to come and where they want to stay and play.”

Top leaders at City Hall agree — in fact, they’re excited enough to give the project a nearly $108,000 low-interest loan that Lee will use to buy down interest costs (and also unlock a $200,000 Bank of North Dakota grant). Granted by the city’s Jobs Development Authority in recent weeks, it’s the first such loan under a new “quality of life” program that seeks to boost exactly the kind of local offerings that Northern Air is building.

“We have gone from a focus on ‘how do we create great jobs here?’ to ‘how do we find the workforce to fill existing jobs as well as create great jobs in this community?'” said Meredith Richards, a community development staffer with the city. “And so quality of life is part of our economic development purview these days."

In fact, City Hall has been on a multi-year campaign to help build Grand Forks’ workforce. Some of that means bringing in new employers — something the city is now pursuing as it courts Fufeng Group, an agribusiness company exploring a new manufacturing facility in the city’s northwest quadrant. Success with the Chinese business could mean a significant uptick in jobs and investment in the community.

But another big part of the project is making the community more attractive to modern workers. In 2021, the city considered putting a large aquarium in Grand Cities Mall, for example, but ultimately scuttled those plans. Efforts to redevelop Columbia Mall also are being discussed. Another proposal is to add a children’s museum in Grand Forks — an idea that received a 100,000 planning grant from the state .

“We’re really trying to keep and maintain our existing workforce, and grow it from within and outside the community,” City Administrator Todd Feland said. “Our growth and development depend on having an engaging community that people want to live in.”

The new city program has remarkably fluid guidelines, Richards said, with relatively few concrete guidelines for what qualifies. The program is aimed at creating unique or remarkable experiences that give the community an edge in building its workforce — and that’s not always easy to define.

“The fear is that people will misinterpret this and think, 'oh, I’ve got a great restaurant, and if I remodel my restaurant, I’ll have access to this great interest rate.' … Restaurants are great, but that’s not something that fits the definition of something unique, or an experiential attraction that’s not already available,” Richards said.

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The business sector in Grand Forks is still pushing ahead despite COVID and despite the new omicron variant, which is all but certain to be a headwind in 2022. Lee pointed out that in the early months of the pandemic, Northern Air was closed for months, and supply chain knots still tangled in the pandemic’s aftermath are still posing questions for the business’ future. If steel for the go-kart project gets held up, for example, that will push one of Northern Air’s top development priorities back, he said.

RELATED: Amid national supply crisis, North Dakota businesses just try to ‘stay ahead of the game’

But for now, he’s optimistic. Business is returning, and for the moment, business feels headed in the right direction.

“We’re happy to be part of what people can do in Grand Forks, and we think with this new expansion it’s going to help to draw a lot of people,” Lee said. “And while they’re here in grand forks, they’re going to spend money, and that helps the whole economy around here.”

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