For at least the last 6 or 7 years and maybe as many as 10 years Jarrod Thomas and I asked some pretty important questions about Grand Forks and the immediate vicinity in North Dakota (1310 KNOX AM Grand Forks, Thursdays at 9am central). One of the most important questions remains unanswered (that seems to be the way it usually goes): what is Grand Forks?
This is not just a simple matter of civic pride. Identity in this case is a starting point for policy. It is a recognition of constraints and defining a path forward. This is why JT and I for many, many shows, over many, many years tried to come up with an answer to this question. This is why we pressed for there to be a bigger conversation about this topic. And so far? JT and I, and a few persistent radio stalkers, I mean listeners, are the only ones having this bigger discussion.
Why do I come back to this? Because it is important! That’s why. There is concern about the loss of metropolitan area status. Okay, but why? Where was this concern when we say employment in Grand Forks moving as in the graph below.
I look at the graph and I see little in the way of sustained success in growing the local economy. In fact I see the labor constrained situation that creates problems for business growth and sustained development. The fact is, the problems start at the end of 1996 and the beginning of 1997. Air force base realignment and the Flood of 1997 seem to be the date when it is just a long sideways move.
Readers (all 4 of you) should be careful not to blame those events. My own research suggests that natural disasters represent an amazing entrepreneurial opportunity. There is no doubt these were sharp, negative events impacting the local economy. But they are not insurmountable, so long as you have. the right policy process. I say process because there will always be mistakes with policy, or at least policies that do not work as well as expected. With a proper process you have early warning indicators and can change course, modify the policy, or abandon the policy if necessary. It is not like the other metro areas in ND did not have challenges over this time frame too.
Since 1990 Grand Forks went from being the second city in North Dakota to the third. Fargo is the only metro area showing continued growth over this time. Bismarck advanced ahead of Grand Forks and then seems to have plateaued as well.
I keep hearing about the need for the community to grow. Right now we need more people. Any idea I hear about how to put Grand Forks on a growth path makes me think of movie Blazing Saddles. When they build a fake Rock Ridge they realize they did not have people. Any ideas right now need to explain where we get the people. New employers will come into town? Great! Who are they going to hire? People already working at other employers in town and then those already existing businesses will be in trouble.
My first suggestion then is we start thinking about what Grand Forks is (and is not) and how we can leverage that to bring in more people. That is, if people are serious about wanting Grand Forks to grow and develop. There is always a chance it is just complaining for the sake of complaining. I hope not, because it is a precarious position Grand Forks finds itself in right now. It is almost as if 20 years of efforts to grow the community evaporated in the last year. The success of those efforts was really only a 10% growth over those 20 years (but hey it was growth!). It will be difficult going forward, but it really is time to actually ask the right questions and come up with the difficult answers.