In the past decade, the business landscape in Greater Grand Forks has changed dramatically. The retail sector has plummeted, evidenced by numerous store closures. The list is obvious and long.
The Columbia Mall, once a tourist destination for its numerous retail options, now is targeted for development as a potential indoor turf facility and aquatic center.
What remains, then, as the city hopes to grow its tax base in the coming years?
Answer: Manufacturing, industry and growth in the primary sector.
That’s why the city of Grand Forks’ decision to move forward with a series of wastewater rate increases is a wise plan, despite some skepticism.
The idea is to raise the average residential wastewater bill from the current $34.49 per month to $41.18 by 2027. With the funds, the city can renovate the municipal wastewater treatment plant, adding new piping, a new generator and other safety improvements. Eventually, the city wants to modify the plant’s four bioreactors to handle increasingly stronger wastewater.
Wastewater at the plant will only increase as the population rises, as existing businesses expand and as new big businesses hopefully move into the community.
“With (Red River Biorefinery), we’ve got more industry than we had in the past,” Waterworks Director Melanie Parvey said earlier this month. “But we’re only able to take so much. In order for the city to grow or us to add another industry, we need to upgrade, and it’s been 20 years since we’ve done anything, so the facility needs improvements anyway.”
Some have expressed concern that the rate increases are being used to subsidize big businesses, and especially those that generate high amounts of wastewater.
Red River Biorefinery, for instance, has had smelly and unusually high wastewater discharges that have led to increased wear on the city’s infrastructure. And in October, after the biorefinery discharged waste that was more noxious than predicted and thus faced more than $1 million in surcharges, the city opted to instead charge only about half that. It’s no wonder some focus has landed on existing, rather than future, businesses.
According to recent reporting by the Herald, the city wastewater plant now cleans and discharges about 9.8 million gallons per day. Industrial businesses are allowed to discharge up to 3.5 million gallons each day. The plant can handle about 12.4 million gallons of sewage per day and divert another 11.9 million gallons into a series of adjacent retention ponds as needed. City consultants predict that by 2040 the plant will process at least 11.3 million gallons of wastewater each day, and they’ve budgeted for another 2.5 million that could be taken up by future residents and new industry.
Without the renovations, the city could get caught unprepared in the coming years. Rather than standing pat, it’s best to plan for growth. The city’s best chance for growth – along with UAS and technological firms – is manufacturing.
Those manufacturers will produce wastewater. So will a larger population.
A recent Herald analysis showed wastewater rates in Grand Forks are about in the middle of the pack when compared to peer cities throughout the Dakotas and Minnesota. A series of 3% raises in the coming years should not be burdensome to the public, nor will it move Grand Forks into the highest rate echelon in the region.
And remember: It’s not about subsidizing existing businesses, but instead should be seen as a step toward planning Grand Forks’ future.