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Grand Forks Economic Development (or the Chicken and the Egg Problem)

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I am forgoing the typical numerical analysis for the purposes of the current post and just trying to reason through the problem that is economic development and economic development policy in Grand Forks. I got to spend some time in other cities over the last few days and so I have some fairly fresh points of comparison in mind.  My first observation is this: Grand Forks is not clear what it want to be. I lived in Grand Forks for the last seventeen years and I like to think I pay more than a little attention to issues of policy in the area and I am not sure there is a coherent, cohesive theme to policy. What do we want to be? This should be a guiding principle behind policy goals at any city office whether we are talking taxation, spending, code enforcement, zoning, or what have you.

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I am forgoing the typical numerical analysis for the purposes of the current post and just trying to reason through the problem that is economic development and economic development policy in Grand Forks. I got to spend some time in other cities over the last few days and so I have some fairly fresh points of comparison in mind. 

My first observation is this: Grand Forks is not clear what it want to be. I lived in Grand Forks for the last seventeen years and I like to think I pay more than a little attention to issues of policy in the area and I am not sure there is a coherent, cohesive theme to policy. What do we want to be? This should be a guiding principle behind policy goals at any city office whether we are talking taxation, spending, code enforcement, zoning, or what have you. Could the city succeed without such clarity at the top level. Possibly, but I doubt it.

A central unifying theme does not necessarily limit the city in any meaningful way (unless they decide to let it). You can have an industrial policy, a housing policy, a parks policy, and so on down the line. Each of these policies should make clear how they are contributing to the overall goal for the city. What we want to be gives us insight into prioritizing some policy areas over others, and then only if the overarching goals are more likely to be met as a result of more attention in one area versus another. By the way it should be clear that these issues are also likely well-directed at the state level as well.

Let’s address something more specific now. The retail sector in Grand Forks absorbed numerous hits in the last few years, from the loss of Macy’s and now Sears, as well as other adjustments and departures. There are two reasons I can think of to highlight as suspects for these changes, one that Grand Forks may be able to influence, and another that is beyond control. The one beyond control is a change in the retail business model with an emphasis on online sales. This forced many stores to make difficult determinations about the appropriate brick-and-mortar footprint and many cities, including Grand Forks, ended up on the chopping block as a result. The other factor I will highlight is the population dynamics of Grand Forks. Before anybody gets worried, I am not an advocate for subsidies or other plans to pay people to relocate here. While that may sound appealing I worry that such plans succeed only as long as there is money invested in them, and as soon as that ends the population flows likely reverse themselves.

I hear constantly that it is difficult to get workers and retain workers, at all age and skill levels. The solutions for this are various and really depend on the type of industry. One thing that should always be a part of the thought process is paying more. Are you paying wages, or is your overall compensation package, competitive? If yes, is it competitive for some amenities your employee might like but does not have in Grand Forks? These are the types of questions businesses need to be asking, and the city policy makers (not just government, but business, nonprofits, and so on) can help ask and answer these and other questions.

I am a big believer that demographics matter for lots of economic issues. A city can be defined by it s demographics, but their demographics are not their destiny. You can correct this through provision of amenities that will attract or retain the demographics you desire. For example, good schools and parks make it more likely you will keep people with young children. However, there are good schools and parks all over the country in all kinds of places, so that is not enough. The list here could be a mile long so I do not want to belabor that point too much.

I am not suggesting I have the answers, but I think I am asking the proper question. Where does Grand Forks need to start? With an overarching understanding of what type of community it is, and what it wants to be. You get those two things nailed down and you can start to chart the appropriate course. The alternative is to drift aimlessly and attempt to keep up with the Joneses (or Fargo) and become a hodgepodge of mimicry and obstinate denial where you have no true economic development goals or policy, rather some perverse game of economic charades.

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