What is the state of the city? Mayor Brandon Bochenski says it’s good – and especially so, considering the way the city weathered a year that could have been financially catastrophic.
Bochenski, elected last June, gave his first State of the City address Wednesday evening and reported the city is relatively strong after the change in leadership and 12 months of uncertainty wrought by the coronavirus.
He outlined progress, some of it financial, some of it organizational and some of it simple pride in how the community rallied amid the pandemic.
“When looking back at the past year, it is truly inspiring to look back at how this community responded and performed – highlighted by our resiliency to physical, mental and economic stress,” Bochenski said. “Grand Forks is a town with momentum and every reason to be optimistic and excited about the future.”
A few highlights from Bochenski’s speech:
● He discussed the communitywide effort during the coronavirus pandemic. “We truly took an all-of-government approach and all-of-community approach,” he said.
● Over the past year of the pandemic, the Grand Forks Jobs Development Authority has loaned out more than $300,000 to applicants through the C-RUN (COVID Response Unmet Needs Loan Fund). The city loosened rules on take-out liquor at restaurants, eliminated restaurant and alcohol beverage license fees for 2021 and promoted local spending.
● General Fund reserves were at 21% at the start of the year and ended over 30%. Sales tax revenue was flat – good news, considering what was expected – and building permit revenue is ahead of average. The city refinanced bonds for a $320,000 savings and cut annual administration staffing costs by $251,000. City employees received a small raise, “all this while cutting the budget and creating a property tax cut,” Bochenski said.
● The city’s public safety divisions underwent organizational structures to increase efficiency. Dispatchers took more than 23,000 911 calls in 2020, “never missing a single call due to COVID infections, quarantines or isolations.”
● He outlined numerous projects that started or will soon begin, including the city’s new waterworks plant and four projects lumped into a much-publicized TIF (tax increment financing) initiative that will boost the aesthetics, livability and public spaces, while increasing the property taxes that eventually will be paid to the city.
● He said other potential development exists, including the University Avenue Corridor, a patch of land near the Alerus Center and the Columbia Mall. Near the Alerus Center, Bochenski said the city has plans for a project that could someday include a children’s museum, BMX track, destination park and tech-learning center; at the mall, he envisions an indoor turf facility and aquatic center.
Considering what could have been this past year, Bochenski is right. Many good things happened, and the city’s leadership – the mayor, council and administrator – adeptly worked to chart a stabilizing course amid a tumultuous pandemic. Unemployment topped 9% during a scary stretch last year, but it’s back down to around 3.4% today.
Challenges remain. Workforce numbers are flat as other communities have shown growth. Available workers might not be able to fill jobs of the future. Retailers have suffered, and not just during the pandemic. The city’s entertainment sector – so important in drawing visitors to the community – is in tatters after 12 months of restrictions and cancellations.
But overall, we agree: The city is in good shape after the pandemic and credit must go to the city’s top executive, whose first challenge – the pandemic – is, hopefully, almost past. Next comes another challenge: Economic stabilization, growth and of development.