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Outgoing Chamber president says GF, EGF are on the right track

Dan Schenkein has left his post as president of the Grand Forks and East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce after more than six years. These are years during which the area transformed from a community recovering from a disastrous flood to a communi...

Dan Schenkein has left his post as president of the Grand Forks and East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce after more than six years.

These are years during which the area transformed from a community recovering from a disastrous flood to a community on the rebound.

When Schenkein arrived in the winter of 2001 from Kansas City, Mo., the city was at a crossroad four years into flood recovery. The Alerus Center had just opened, as had the Grand Forks Marketplace, the city's biggest commercial development since Columbia Mall. The Ralph Engelstad Arena was to open in the fall and King's Walk Golf Course in the spring.

His goals, he said, were to be an advocate for the business community and to build partnerships.

On Schenkein's watch, the merger process between the two cities' chambers that started years before was completed in 2004. The Chamber worked with City Hall to kick off the mayor' annual State of the City address and the university president's annual Wake Up with UND speech. One of Schenkein's goals when he arrived was to build partnerships in the community.


The community got national attention when the Chamber and other local groups brought humorist Dave Barry to town in 2001. The cities got attention of a less mocking nature when The Ralph hosted the World Junior Hockey Championship in 2005.

Now, more than 10 years after the flood, Schenkein said he and the Chamber has reached a crossroad.

"Right now, in order for this organization to move forward, it really needs someone with energy and a new direction and some of those leadership skills that the organization is looking for," he said. "At some point you have to pass the baton on to the next runner."

He's looking at different job opportunities, he said, but hasn't settled on anything.

In the interim, marketing and programs director Lisa Swanson will run the Chamber in his place.

It's normal for chamber presidents to move on after a few years in a community, Schenkein said. "It's like school superintendents or ministers or chiefs of police," he said. "At some point, your energy levels, your ability to initiate change (falters). Do you want to coast or do you want to continue to move forward?"

Generally, he said, it's a good idea to bring in a fresh perspective from outside the community. "We're agents of change," he said.

The Herald did an exit interview with Schenkein last week:


How do you think the community has changed since 2001?

That's a big question.

The past six years has really seen a transformation in this community's confidence. There's a can-do spirit rather than an entitlement perspective. We got through some tremendous impacts: The flood, the closing of the missile wing and the transfer of two-thirds of the active duty personnel within a six-, seven-month period of time. Huge economic hit.

In 2001, this community was four years post-flood. This is a very risk-adverse society and so there was a considerable amount of conservative, outlook as far as the economic future of the community.

Some people may argue that we're still not completely recovered, but I would point out that, from an economic standpoint, we're well beyond the point of no return, that we have grown more in six years than not only the four previous but, some people would argue, the decade prior to.

It's been fun watching the phoenix effect this community has gone through.

Where do you think the tipping point was between a community that was in flood recovery mode and one that's more confident and more outward looking?

I would point to two particular areas.


Up until 2003, 2004, there was bad economic data on our community. We were overly dependent on statistical data that was generated somewhere.

One of my favorite stories is taking a look at some real estate data from a commercial developer in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in 2003. They were having a hard time marketing some buildings in our community.

I said, "Tell me what you've got. What do you have about our community?"

I remember kind of laughing after the information was brought forward that showed the daytime population of Grand Forks was approximately 32,000 people (The 2000 Census said the city's population was 49,321). Where does every one else go in the daytime versus the nighttime?

There were a number of folks who sat down: UND, the Economic Development Corp., the Office of Urban Development, the Metropolitan Planning Organization. We were able to start generating numbers that were much more representative of our community. You started seeing national companies going, "Wait a second, what is it about that community that we need to know more about?" You saw additional retailers coming in, the bigger boxes, the national restaurants coming in, in that 2004, 2005 timeframe.

The other tipping point was when our community played host to the World Junior Hockey Championship. It demonstrated to the people who live here that we were capable of doing a world class job of hosting and representing ourselves. It was as much about providing a quality hockey tournament as much as creating a look-at-us-now type of mentality. That level of confidence I think continues to carry forward today.

Housing you see is explosive even today. While some of the high-end housing is a little bit slower to move, we still have a very strong real estate market. What that tells me is there's a lot of people interested in our community, in our region.

On the converse side of that, we often time take for granted what we just assume is normal as a society. We take for granted the quality of life, the quality of education, the neighborly attitude that 90 percent of the country just does not have. If we were able to even grasp that whole concept and give it a much more prominent role in how we promote ourselves to the outside world, I think we will do a much better job providing more employment opportunities.


We can be our own worst enemies when we're self-deprecating and say I can't imagine why anyone would want to live here. There are communities that exist in much more remote locations or more severe - if you consider our weather to be severe - that are doing very well. I mean look at Winnipeg or Edmonton or Calgary. There is a reason and the reason is driven by economics.

When you talk about attitude, it struck me that our civic and government leaders seem more confident about the community than the average person. How do you think that attitude has been able to percolate downward?

We have some extremely dynamic leaders across the board. But I also know that we have a void, a void in the group that's ready to step forward and say, "Allow me to help with the burden of leadership."

A number of years ago the Herald brought in a consultant from Cleveland State (University), Ned Hill. One of the quotes that still stays with me today is: "There are too few people wearing too many hats in leadership roles."

That holds true.

Serving in a leadership role in any community is a tough situation. For this community to move forward, the current leadership has to work on this succession process. It's not about relinquishing the reigns today, but about putting the steps and processes in place in place by which the next leaders can easily follow.

I can see how some people that might want to be leaders don't want to go there because you become a target.

It's scary. It is frightening to often serve in that capacity where you're placed under a microscope, whether it's the City Council member whose home value is placed in the public view or someone second guessing whether the decision to go forward with an educational issue was the right decision or not. A lot of armchair quarterbacks in society. It's not just in this community, it's every community.


We do a particularly good job in this community of allowing those armchair quarterbacks a venue in which they can more publicly express their thoughts and opinions.

The Chamber has done a great job in providing training and skills and opportunities for over 800 individuals in this region to move in a leadership role. If you go back and look at the ranks of the folks that have gone through leadership class, many of those folks are our current leaders today.

Look in your crystal ball and tell us, where do you think we're headed in, say, 10 years?

I think the growth areas from an economic stand point over the next 10 years are probably threefold.

No. 1, we're going to see some major changes in agricultural production. We've seen everything else churn and switch over from a technology standpoint and ag is the next great area to do that.

I think the university and its research is going to be a major driver in the economy. What used to be the economic lifelines of communities 100 years ago when this region was settled was the railroad. Today, it's education and health care.

The third area is the evolution of what's going on at the air force base. We've got something brand new that's coming in and if we are going to be continued to be designated as a base for UAS (unmanned aerial systems), I think industry's going to want to be on the ground close to where they're serviced, where they're taken care of, where they land, where they take off from.

A lot what you talked about isn't necessarily about business but about attitude adjustment. It's less lobbying City Council or economic development and more thinking in the right direction.


Business is certainly about bringing the cash registers, so to speak. But for business to succeed, it also has to have a quality community in which to exist. I remember working with a firm that relocated to our community three, four years ago. Part of the effort in recruiting the manager from outside the area was the quality of life issues. Soccer was very important to that manager's children. Part of the deal, was to say we got a great youth soccer program here and let me introduce you to some people with kids in the program who can talk to you about it.

Let's talk about where we need to go to improve ourselves as a community.

We need to continue to look at how we present ourselves. It goes back to making sure we have true and accurate statistical data about our community. The quality of life we offer, the safety and security, education that we take for granted. That needs to be the showpiece rather than competing with the other communities in the world that are offering economic incentives, buildings and green space or whatever.

Going through a process of developing a leadership succession plan. If we don't have someone that is either in training or in transition it creates a leadership void and that leadership void means a giant step backwards.

The realization that we're not islands unto ourselves - Grand Forks, East Grand Forks, Grand Forks County, Polk County - that we're in a world economy, that goods and services and products go worldwide. Just because there's a river that runs through us, there's a geo-political line in the middle of that river, we're one economy. No one differentiates when you go into a store whether that dollar is created or originated in Minnesota or North Dakota.

What are the Chamber's roles in all this?

While we were not the first to do it - the consolidation process we went through in 2005 - we certainly did it in a much more visible way. We've been able to demonstrate that you can effectively provide services across those lines that traditionally may have created barriers in people's minds, that you know, we're only subject to roles in this state or in this community.

Another area I think this Chamber has excelled in over the past six years and that's recognizing its members. Two Grand Forks businesses over the past six years have been recognized as North Dakota's small business of the year, one was one of nine businesses recognized nationally (by the U.S. Small Business Administration). This past year our nominee, McFarlane Sheet Metal, was ranked No. 3 in the entire country.

It's not about tooting your own horns but an opportunity to brag about someone else. In this society in particular we are not accustomed to bragging rights or patting ourselves on the back.

One of the programs we've been able to initiate - it's going to be its sixth year next spring - and that's the mayor's State of the City address. Here's a wonderful opportunity for our top elected local official to brag a little bit and showcase what's working in this community. We've also launched that with the Wake Up to UND program that lets President (Charles) Kupchella really talk about the university's impact on the community. Often times the community's only involvement on campus is either going to a ball game or a concert or dropping someone off in a classroom.

On a much smaller scale, we provide an opportunity in the Cat's Incredible in East Grand Forks. Yes, it's a fishing tournament but it allows us to demonstrate an asset on a regional and even national basis. Next month we're going to be on cable TV. This is a TV program all about catfishing. While it has a very focused audience, the focus was on our community, what there was to see and do. How many times can you show them hook a fish and bringing them into the boat?

Tran reports on City Hall. Reach him at (701) 780-1248 or ttran@gfherald.com or see his blog at www.areavoices.com/gfhcitybeat .

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