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Housing cost was biggest news of 2013

Following our annual tradition, the Herald newsroom has picked the Top 10 stories we reported in the past year. This past year proved to be another frustrating one for those seeking housing in the Grand Forks area. Whether they wanted to rent or ...

Housing in Grand Forks
The median price of a home in Grand Forks has surpassed $200,000, despite efforts by city leaders and industry to keep housing affordable. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Following our annual tradition, the Herald newsroom has picked the Top 10 stories we reported in the past year.

This past year proved to be another frustrating one for those seeking housing in the Grand Forks area.

Whether they wanted to rent or take the plunge and buy a home, residents found putting a roof over their heads challenging thanks to the apparent lack of affordability and availability.

It's an issue the Herald has covered extensively since 2012 and the newsroom staff has picked housing costs as its top story of the year.

"Short supply in the face of strong demand" was seen as the key issue by a Grand Forks city commission on housing in January.

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In the housing market, that situation seemed to have not shifted much during the year. Last month, the city reported that median home prices had surpassed $200,000, an increase of almost $32,000 from the previous year.

Building permits for single-family homes haven't soared like apartments, but city leaders say more land will be available to build homes on next year compared to past years.

In the rental market, apartment vacancy rates dipped below 4 percent in July. In a city Grand Forks' size, housing experts say that rate should be more like 10 percent.

What followed was a building boom with more than 1,500 apartment units approved, under construction or finished last year. Additional apartment projects remain under review by city planners.

The rest of the Top 10 is below:

2. The East Grand Forks community joined in the search for a missing boy: Anthony Kuznia, 11, went missing from his grandmother's rural East Grand Forks home in early August. The boy had autism and was prone to wandering, she said. Law enforcement agency launched a massive manhunt that included officers from more than two dozen agencies and nearly 500 volunteers, the largest in maybe a decade. They combed 17 square miles of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks on the ground and in the air. A day later he was found, drowned in the Red River. Officers took part in his funeral procession.

3. A controversial North Dakota higher education leader is ousted: Hamid Shirvani, chancellor of the North Dakota University System, was voted out by the State Board of Higher Education in June, less than a year after he started the job. He was hired by the board to "shake the system up a bit," as one board member said, but his attempt to do so proved divisive. His critics said he had an unusually aggressive leadership style. His supporters said he was undone by a coalition of the university presidents and their friends in the Legislature.

UND President Bob Kelley became embroiled in the controversy when Kelley asked Shirvani why he wanted to convert space set aside for information technology staff into an office suite for him and his staff. Kelley said in an email obtained by Forum News Service that it wasn't his intention to challenge Shirvani. Nevertheless, Kelley was among presidents who received bad job reviews. After Shirvani's departure, the board gave the presidents better reviews and raises.

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4. The child welfare crisis at the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation continued: In June, Lauryn Whiteshield, 2, was pushed down an embankment by her stepgrandmother Hope Tomahawk Whiteshield. The toddler's death followed the 2012 deaths of siblings Destiny Dubois-Shaw, 9, and Travis Dubois Jr., 6, at the hands of their older cousin, Valentino Bagola. After the 2012 deaths, tribal members' complaints about the reservation's child protection system and its leadership grew louder, drawing the attention of Washington officials, including Sens. John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp. Angry tribal members ultimately voted out their chairman, Roger Yankton. The new chairman, Leander "Russ" McDonald, said child protection was his No. 1 priority.

Hope Whiteshield was sentenced to 30 years in prison in November. Bagola was sentenced to life in prison last month.

5. Grand Forks Public Schools became the target of taxpayers' anger: The School Board received withering criticism from citizens and other local government officials after it proposed to raise property taxes, erasing some of the gains from property-tax relief legislation passed by state lawmakers. Schools officials said state aid didn't cover new students and federal aid for students at the Air Force base had decreased. Instead of answering questions at a public hearing in mid-August, they instead spent two weeks crafting a Q&A document to offer the public. The criticism eventually did prompt schools officials to find cuts in their budget to reduce the property tax increase from 28.6 to 21.6 percent. The board later picked one of its loudest critics, Doug Carpenter, as a replacement for a member who had earlier left town for a new job.

6. The death of a Grand Forks student touched the community: McCain Endres, 16, was a popular Central High School junior when he died from a motorcycle accident in May, a few days before the school year ended. His classmates and the community mourned him with a makeshift memorial at the street corner where he died and with a 5K run. A memorial bench has since been installed at the corner. A student whose car Endres collided with initially said his classmates were cruel to her. But she was surprised by how quickly Endres' parents reached out to her. She told police she attended his funeral, at the Endres' invitation, out of respect to him.

7. UND's Fighting Sioux nickname controversy came to an end: The fight to keep UND's Fighting Sioux nickname ended quietly in 2013. An appeals court ruled in May that supporters of the nickname from the Spirit Lake Nation had no standing, preventing them from challenging the NCAA decision that forced UND to retire the nickname. By then, the nickname had already been officially retired for months. Ralph Engelstad Arena, which called itself "home of the Fighting Sioux," removed those words from its wall the year before and sold the letters in March to a Pisek, N.D., farmer for $8,000. Still the nickname lives on both in the heart of UND hockey fans and in UND aircrafts' call sign.

8. A $1.5 billion fertilizer plant is announced in Grand Forks: Northern Plains Nitrogen in May announced plans for a facility to produce nitrogen fertilizer from natural gas. The company, launched by the North Dakota Corn Growers Association and fertilizer industry veterans, projected a 2015 groundbreaking and a start date in 2017 for the project, which would employ 2,000 workers during construction and 135 to operate the facility.

Principals said the factory would feed an increasing demand for product, driven in part by the growth of corn as a major crop in the region.

9. Unmanned aircraft systems taking off in Grand Forks region: The region's stake in UAS got a boost through two major developments this year.

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Grand Forks County officials announced in October that the Air Force would lease 217 acres for the Grand Sky technology park, a planned home for UAS companies. The park could eventually support 2,700 jobs.

This week, the Federal Aviation Administration selected Grand Forks as a test site for integrating UAS aircraft into commercial airspace. Political and business leaders predicted the long-awaited designation will support further growth for UAS activity.

10. Flooding in the northern Red River Valley: Spring flooding took the life of a Grafton, N.D., man, caused millions of dollars in damage to local infrastructure and prompted the evacuation of Crystal, N.D., and Cavalier, N.D. The latter was evacuated after floods threatened to damage Renwick Dam, but the dam held. The body of the Grafton man was found in early September, about four months after he was swept away near Minto, N.D.

Honorable mentions

Other big news of the year included:

Gay rights came to Minnesota and Grand Forks: Minnesota legalized same-sex marriage in August, and couples in northwest Minnesota as well as neighboring North Dakota took advantage of their newfound right. About 25 marriage licenses were issued in counties in the region, mostly in Polk County. The county made it easy for them by offering to conduct the ceremony as well as issue the license. Gay rights, though not popular in North Dakota, had some support in Grand Forks and Fargo. The Grand Forks City Council passed a law forbidding housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and the Fargo City Commission passed a resolution encouraging acceptance of gay people.

Life in prison for Crookston killer: Jedediah Troxel, 32, of Crookston was sentenced in November to life without parole for sexually assaulting and murdering his friend, Tanya Kazmierczak. Her body was found along a river near Thief River Falls after an August 2012 party where the two had met. Kamierczak left behind her husband of 20 years, Jeff Kazmierczak, and three children. Her husband said a grandchild was expected soon.

'Chucking the pigskin': The real news was the firing of UND football coach Chris Mussman because his team was not able to compete effectively against others in the Big Sky Conference.

But the news that went viral online was one of the people who applied for Mussman's old job. Christopher McComas is an information technology specialist at Marshall University in West Virginia and has no experiencing coaching a football team. But he said he's very good at video game football. He told UND that, with him in charge, "We're going 5 wide, chucking the pigskin all over the place. Never punt. Onside every time." The Internet went wild.

McComas got a lot of laughs but not the job. It went to Southern Illinois defensive coordinator Bubba Schweigert. No word yet if he will chuck the pigskin.

Tom Endres bows his head as he remembers his son McCain
Tom Endres bows his head as he remembers his son McCain during a candlelight vigil on the family's lawn Thursday night May 23, 2013 in Grand Forks, N.D. McCain Endres died in a motorcycle accident Wednesday May 22, 2013.JOHN STENNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD

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