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Shape of Success: How Grand Forks’ borders tell the story of its future

The Grand Forks of the early 1970s was a different world entirely.

Not only did it have its old, pre-flood neighborhoods along the river, but a 1970s-era aerial photo shows that where there's now a sprawling commercial district along 32nd Avenue South, there's nothing but open fields—a blank slate it would take decades to fill in—and emptiness in what's now the south end. Red River High School was almost surrounded by agricultural land on the city's western border, and there was no Columbia Road overpass.

Since that photo, the city has been shaped by steady growth up to Interstate 29 and deep into the south, aided by a kind of developmental momentum. The Columbia Mall, which opened on Aug. 2, 1978, with a Dayton's, a J.C. Penney and a Target, was one of the biggest parts of a push drew school district expansion that drew parks that drews yet more interest.

The city's central neighborhoods filled over the coming decades, and today, the south end is where the city still continues to see most residential developers' interest, with the jagged framework of home after home poking through the North Dakota soil. Landowners to the south have generally been more interested in developing their property, and the Interstate 29 barrier to the west is as much a mental barrier on growth as concrete-and-pavement one, city leaders say.

"At some point, you need to just generate enough interest in another area for something to really pop," City Engineer Al Grasser said.

A balancing act

But in the west especially, that interest is still comparatively tepid. In recent years, southward residential growth has been the story of the city, forcing it increasingly into a longer, more rectangular shape. And more and more, the shape of the city is becoming a matter of policy significance—according to both top Grand Forks officials and even Gov. Doug Burgum, cities need to refocus the way they grow.

One of Burgum's philosophies caters to "infill" development—the kind that grows a city's core and inner neighborhoods by building bigger and better where streets, watermains and other resources already exist. Burgum is against sprawling expansion around the state, arguing that growing a city wider—instead of taller—comes with the need to expand those resources, and thus a more expensive bottom line.

Grand Forks leaders have shown strong interest in the governor's ideas. A key argument for the coming condo building on Arbor Park, 15 S. Fourth St., was how efficiently the high-value development will fit into an existing, built-up downtown neighborhood—boosting the tax base with minimal city effort. City Administrator Todd Feland said the city has to spend more resources per capita, on needs like fire protection, for an odd-shaped city. And the city's ever-southward growth has been a headache as leaders look for a new Red River crossing—one that doesn't send trucks through residential Grand Forks but is still far enough north enough to be of use for East Grand Forks.

But City Hall is faced with a balancing act: Longtime concern about housing affordability has spurred city leaders to offer builders big incentives. City leaders recently extended special assessment deferrals to cater to a 111-plot development in the south end.

"We're still trying to get our arms around that shift in philosophy," City Planner Brad Gengler said of Burgum's infill initiative. "No matter what the trends are, we'll still continue to improve the downtown—create as many opportunities as possible. But the reality is, not everybody can live in the downtown."

Future growth

As the city looks ahead, there are opportunities big and small for it to thrive. A new Northern Plains Nitrogen fertilizer plant has been planned for years, and it's unclear if it will happen. If it does, it would bring a massive influx of workers and transform the city. That's tempered, though, by the big-box retail losses around the country that recently claimed Grand Forks' Macy's.

Keith Lund, president and CEO of the Grand Forks Economic Development Corp., said Grand Forks' nascent unmanned aircraft systems industry is taking off. He's excited not only about UND's continued focus on research and operation, but on developments at Grand Sky, a tech park for unmanned aircraft that operates at Grand Forks Air Force Base. That's not to mention new development along the north end of the city, where a new straw pulp plant and biorefinery are expected to move in soon.

City Planner Brad Gengler said the city has already begun the process of expanding water infrastructure west to make way for city expansion, which is expected alongside more robust southward growth in coming years. Experts say westward development will come more easily once there's something to attract residents—following behind Wal-Mart in building the kinds of amenities that helps neighborhoods thrive.

"Once it's over on this side of the Interstate, it's going to stay here," said Mike Opp, owner of Grand Forks' Oxford Realty. "If something were to catapult it over to the other side, away you'd go."

This article was originally published by the Grand Forks Herald. Read the original article here.

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The information above is for general awareness only and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Office of Economic Adjustment or the Department of Defense as a whole.

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