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Grand Forks downtown is 'back all the way'
By Jonathan Knutson 
The Forum - 04/14/2002

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The 5-year-old images of downtown Grand Forks are etched in our memories like acid on metal:

Burned-out buildings, flooded streets, exhausted emergency workers, lost-it-all business owners fighting back tears.

But visit downtown today and you'll come back with very different images:

New and renovated buildings, a smoothly functioning infrastructure, smiling businesspeople.

"Downtown is back all the way. Grand Forks is back all the way," said Mayor Richard Brown.

Some observers even joke that the mid-April 1997 flood and fire were a blessing in disguise, clearing away much that was old and tired downtown to make way for the new and fresh.

About 40 flood- and fire-damaged downtown buildings were removed; parks and parking lots occupy most of that land now. Officials say half of the buildings were small, aging and ill-maintained and had little economic or historic value.

"The flood and fire created so much pain and loss for so many people. It was a terrible thing for the city," Brown said. "At the same time, some good has come out of it."

Money -- and lots of it -- helped Grand Forks rebuild. City and state funds were used, as well as insurance proceeds and bank loans, but the bulk of the work was done with $171 million in federal Community Development Block Grants.

That money was spent on 198 projects throughout Grand Forks. The flood damaged virtually every part of the city, not just downtown.

Terry Hanson, the city's urban development director, estimated about 10 percent to 15 percent of the $171 million was spent on projects in or near downtown.

Big-ticket downtown projects and the block grants they received include:

E The Corporate Center, $5.25 million.

E Streetscape and amenities, $1.7 million.

E Parking, $2.7 million.

E Water main replacement, $3 million. The city kicked in another $1.1 million.

E Rehabilitation of the Metropolitan Opera House, $600,000.

E Water tower, $1 million. The city contributed another $250,000.

"The infrastructure downtown is taken care of. Just about all the remaining buildings have been repaired or renovated," Hanson said.

While fixing the streets, sewers and so forth was vital, the corporate center has been the crown jewel of downtown renewal. The center is one of the first places that city officials usually take out-of-town visitors.

"We're very proud of it," Brown said. "It's an anchor for downtown."

The 100,000-square-foot center cost about $15 million and combines renovated buildings with new construction.

The center is especially important because it's home to three major Grand Forks employers: Alerus Financial, the Brady, Martz and Associates accounting firm, and the Camrud, Maddock, Olson and Larson law firm.

Immediately after the flood, it was uncertain if the three businesses -- longtime downtown cornerstones -- would move elsewhere in the city.

"Everyone interested in downtown realized how important it was to keep them here, and we worked together to make it happen," said Lonnie Laffen, a Grand Forks architect who was active in rebuilding downtown.

Laffen -- an amateur historian who had led walking tours of downtown for years -- said he's especially pleased the rebuilt downtown is true to its roots.

Before the flood, Laffen said, downtown was shaped largely by what he called "two overarching architectural concepts."

The first were the ox-cart trails used by Red River Valley merchants and settlers. Grand Forks originally developed around those trails, which, though long vanished, still affect downtown's layout.

The second architectural concept was the "City Beautiful concept" that swept across America in the early 20th century. The idea was for courthouses, schools and other important structures to be built near each other.

"To a very large extent, downtown was laid out the way it was because of the ox cart trails and City Beautiful," Laffen said. "And we were pretty successful in retaining those influences" in the rebuilding.

The look and feel of downtown Grand Forks invariably gets good reviews from visitors, said Mark Krauseneck, president of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp.

"I've heard many favorable comments from people seeing downtown for the first time since the flood," he said.

With work on streets, sewers and buildings mostly completed, a new task faces Krauseneck and other Grand Forks officials:

Finding more businesses to occupy retail and office space downtown. The commercial vacancy rate downtown is lower now than it was before the flood, and city officials hope to reduce it even more.

Brown said he's confident that downtown's best days are still to come.

Strong cooperation among city businesses made rebuilding downtown possible and will lead to future successes as well, he said.

He pointed to the New England Patriots football team, whose members insisted on being introduced collectively, rather than as individuals, before the 2002 Super Bowl. The underdog Patriots won the game.

"Our business community has been like the Patriots. They're a team," he said.

He acknowledged some Grand Forks residents complained that too much money and effort were being spent rebuilding downtown.

His answer, then and now, is that downtown is the hub of Grand Forks and essential to the city and its future.

Laffen said Grand Forks residents sometimes forget what visitors realize immediately.

"So much has been accomplished downtown. When you think of where we were five years ago and where we are today -- well, it's something we can all be proud of," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Jonathan Knutson at (701) 241-5530


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