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Our view: The silver lining of the Flood of 1997 is becoming easier to see

When the floodwaters breached the dikes on April 18, 1997, it devastated homes and businesses throughout East Grand Forks and Grand Forks. But the community regrouped and rebuilt.

Herald pull quote, 4/16/22
Herald graphic
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This weekend marks the 25th anniversary of the Flood of 1997, an event that transformed the community.

When the floodwaters breached the dikes on April 18, 1997, it devastated homes and businesses throughout East Grand Forks and Grand Forks. But the community regrouped and rebuilt.

As former Blue Moose Bar and Grill owner Dave Homstad told the Herald in 2017, the flood – so sad and traumatizing at the time – came with a silver lining, albeit one that took years to see.

“I think the city has recovered nicely,” he said in a Herald special edition that marked the 20th anniversary of the flood. “I believe there is nowhere to go but up for this community. It was tough to go through, but … it kind of made everybody say it’s time to move on and make it better. That’s what happened.”

This week, the Herald – in our print edition, in a special section included in today’s edition, and on the newspaper’s website – is featuring hundreds of images from readers who answered a call to share with us their photos and memories of the Flood of ’97. The images portray frustration, a bit of sarcastic humor and, especially, the damage caused by that historic event. Several readers loaned us photos of the devastation that existed in the business district of both cities. Aided by that visual reminder, it’s much easier to see how the community has moved on and, in the words of Homstad, become better.

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Even a decade after the flood, empty lots existed in downtown Grand Forks – places that were torn down after the waters subsided. In some spots, little pocket parks spang up, including one – Arbor Park – that caused a controversy in 2017.

When the city decided to allow construction on the park, it sparked a debate about whether the lot, which was never declared a park, should be left alone or eligible for development. The debate lasted months, until a citywide vote rejected a proposal to keep it as parkland.

Since then, a new building – Selkirk on Fourth – has sprung from that vacant lot left empty by the flood.

And it’s a good example of the flood’s silver lining, serving as a gateway to so much more development in the past five years. Today in downtown Grand Forks, the new Argyle building is nearly complete, just down the street from Selkirk on Fourth. The Beacon, a multi-use facility with an outdoor plaza and event space, is under construction three blocks away.

A new Hugo’s grocery store, with apartments and shared space with Alerus, opened late last year. St. John's block is being transformed by Icon Architectural Group into apartments, retail space and a plaza.

The Edgewood Corporate Plaza building is expected to see the new Cloud 9 event center and Olive Ann hotel. Harry’s Steakhouse opened last year next to the Empire Arts Center, which itself has seen a two-decade-long renovation process.

Franklin on Fourth is being constructed on the former Lyons Auto Supply site, across from the Herald building, which itself is being renovated for business expansion.

And in East Grand Forks, post-flood development brought a new Blue Moose, a new Boardwalk Bar, a new Cabela’s, a new Sacred Heart School, a new River Cinema and various other businesses.

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In both communities, new public schools and fresh new public buildings have arisen. City Hall in East Grand Forks is an architectural beauty; the Alerus Center and Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks are top-notch sports and event venues.

The forward momentum continues, evidenced by the sounds of construction that echo across downtown today. In the 25 years since the flood, when has there ever been so much development news to report since the decision to build on Arbor Park five years ago?

The flood was a terrible and traumatic event that probably will forever be the low point for both cities. But 25 years after the waters subsided, Greater Grand Forks continues to rise to the challenge. This is a community that has sad memories of a terrible time, but also one that has shown an incredible ability to overcome and improve.

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