“Think bold and think big.” Those were words of advice from Grand Forks City Administrator Todd Feland Tuesday during a gathering designed to help chart the future for a downtown building.
Feland and two dozen others spent three hours discussing downtown and specifically the Grand Forks Herald building, purchased earlier this year by the city for $2.75 million.
The original building was built in 1931. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places 50 years later. Sixteen years after that, it was devastated by the 1997 flood.
The Herald’s owners at the time rebuilt with flair and symbolism. A clock tower rises more than 70 feet above the street and there are nods to the flood and ensuing fire throughout the design. Its large meeting room was used for Tuesday’s meeting.
At present, three renters occupy the building: The Herald staff, the staff of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. and the school district, which uses a portion of the building for classrooms.
The goal is to develop the building for community-focused opportunities. A survey conducted midway through Tuesday’s event revealed these findings:
-- 84% of attendees prefer updated, unique features over preserving the building’s history.
-- 64% prefer aesthetically appealing features over being budget conscious.
-- 92% prefer open and flexible spaces over closed and controlled spaces.
-- 68% prefer vibrant public spaces over safety and security.
-- 88% prefer collaborative spaces over private and quiet spaces.
Among the ideas were various spaces for collaboration, using the building as a way to address poverty in the community, creating podcast areas and making the building an artistic hub.
Strong ideas all.
Among our favorites are using the building’s open spaces to better connect UND to downtown. Or developing quality meeting areas, which the city lacks today.
Yet as the building’s future today is fuzzy, strategists would be wise to proceed with transparency and prudence as they work to bring it into focus.
Working on plans without being overtly budget conscious will cause consternation in the community. That unease could create quicksand from which realistic ideas may never escape.
Also, the city should be wary of ideas that infringe on private business. Renting space to a coffee shop is one thing – everyone Tuesday loved that idea – but any ideas that suggest using city resources in a way that could harm existing businesses should be avoided.
Safety and security must be considered throughout the process. Collaborative spaces are important, but trouble sometimes lurks in busy places.
Finally, the community must be fully involved. Tuesday’s meeting was noted with a story in that morning’s Herald, but the invitation list included only stakeholders -- those who have some sort of potential connection to the building. It was meant as an internal working group; that’s OK for now, but others will need to be heard. The city must make gestures to entice doubters to give their say, too.
Feland’s words -- “bold” and “big” -- are a strong start to this project, which will be a boon to downtown Grand Forks and an asset to the community.
But going forward, “open” and “prudent” are important, too.