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MAIN STREET MAKEOVER: Grafton sees business district rebound

GRAFTON, N.D. -- Just two years ago, Grafton's business district was pockmarked by vacant storefronts. In a calculated gamble, the city began buying the long-vacant buildings from Walsh County, which had taken possession for non-payment of taxes,...

Kerry DeMars
Kerry DeMars shows his prized leg lamp from the movie "A Christmas Story," that he displays in the window of his hardware store on mainstreet in Grafton, N.D. the day after Thanksgiving to signal the start of the Christmas season each year. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

GRAFTON, N.D. -- Just two years ago, Grafton's business district was pockmarked by vacant storefronts.

In a calculated gamble, the city began buying the long-vacant buildings from Walsh County, which had taken possession for non-payment of taxes, in hopes of encouraging local businesses and entrepreneurs to make investments to bring them back to life.

The city had a couple of tools to help:

- Renaissance Zone. Instituted six years ago, the program provides up to five years in tax abatements to property owners who invest in building improvements in the zone. The city works with Walsh County Job Development Authority to help potential developers. The JDA works with state loan programs through the Bank of North Dakota.

- Storefront Improvement Program. The city offers forgivable loans of up to 50 percent of property owners' investments to rehabilitate the building's storefront. The maximum benefit is $10,000.


A stroll down Hill Avenue, Grafton's Main Street, and other downtown streets indicates the gamble is paying off.

"There is only one vacant building left on Main Street," Mayor Chris West said, "and the Storefront Improvement Program is going bonkers. Now, housing is our biggest challenge. We're running low on available lots."

Marvin Windows, the town's biggest employer, currently is looking for 30 employees, he said. And Lean Technologies, which makes specialty equipment for the agriculture and energy industries, plans to hire about 100 people by the end of the year. The company is operating out of the city's spec building and is adding another building to the complex.

Grafton, which had a population of about 5,000 in 1980, dropped to 2,840 by 1990 and to 4,516 in 2000. In 2008, the North Dakota Census Data Center estimated the population at 3,978.

The 2010 U.S. Census put the population at 4,284.

Taking care of business

No less than a dozen businesses have cashed in on at least one of the programs, with another four or five applications pending.

Kerry DeMars, owner of Grafton True Value Hardware, has taken advantage of both.


"For someone in the position I was in, it was perfect timing," he said.

He moved his store across the street five years ago, to the long-vacant Reyleck's Department Store building, which originally opened in the 1880s as a Chicago Store, a department store chain.

The interior preserves much of the vintage setting, including rare round radiators, and a second-floor balcony office that was common 50 years ago.

DeMars was one of the first two businesses to take advantage of the Storefront Improvement Program. At the time, True Value was introducing a new business theme and color scheme for its stores.

He invested about $60,000 into the storefront, including replacement of four eight-foot display windows, including two of which had broken at about the same time.

"We couldn't have done this without these programs," he said.

DeMars isn't alone.

Last year, three major empty buildings changed hands. Today, all are occupied by new businesses.


Jim Dietz, a Grand Forks real estate investor, bought and remodeled the old Mid Towne Motel, which also had housed a long-closed restaurant and bar. His refurbished Mid Towne Apartments is fully occupied.

Specialties and more

Ed Boura bought the old VFW building, which had been vacant since 2005. He now operates a small engine repair business there.

And Travis Ostlie, a local laborer and real estate agent, bought the old J.C. Penney building, which had been vacant for about four years.

Today, two upstairs apartments are occupied, and the old store is occupied by Luscious Boutique. Operated by Mary Kippen, it features vintage clothing, jewelry and furs, as well as specialty items made by other people in the area.

Another new business is Born Again Furniture, featuring custom upholstery and used furniture.

Shenanigans, a restaurant that had been located along N.D. Highway 17, now commands a downtown anchor position in the rehabilitated former Getz Drug building. Soon, Grafton Drug will move into Shenanigans' old home.

The new Main Street now is crowded with a variety of businesses, with just one major vacancy -- the former Walsh County Bank building. The city has replaced the leaking roof to protect the interior and recently made some storefront improvements.


West said the city now is working with a prospective buyer.

"The program's working," the mayor said of the Renaissance Zone and Storefront Improvement Program. "It's helping our community a lot. It's a lot more attractive."

"I think people are surprised that there's so much going on here," said Kippen, who moved her Luscious Boutique store from a small location to the Penney building in November. She also operates an eBay store by the same name.

She also rents space in her store to area residents who make specialty items, homemade soaps and lotions, porcelain gifts or collectibles, and more.

"We have a wide variety of stores that are coming to town, a lot of really unique specialty shops," said Emberly Lietz, executive vice president of the Grafton Area Chamber of Commerce. "Homemade fudge, antiques, goat's milk, antiques. We also have those stores that have been here for a long time, and a lot of specialty items, like clothing stores, too.

"Grafton is becoming a destination for these things."

Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 110; or send email to kbonham@gfherald.com .

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