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East Grand Forks 'nation's poster child for flood recovery'

By Deneen Gilmour
The Forum

4/14/2002 - EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. – Same faces, different place.

Different attitude, too. What was once a town known for potato barons and rowdy college
bars, is now, as Mayor Lynn Stauss likes to say, "the nation's poster child for flood
recovery."

Think he's bragging?

Take a drive. You’ll see a town that looks nothing like the former East Grand Forks. Heck,
it doesn't even really look like a Red River Valley town.

It looks like something, well, brand new. Something established after the slate was wiped
clean. That's precisely what happened here after the April 1997 flood all but wiped East
Grand Forks off the map.

The look is grand

For starters, a new City Hall patterned after Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, stands
sentinel a half-mile from the Red River.

Sure, they could have built a cinder block box and called it city hall. "We built this for the
future," Stauss said. "It shows we have pride in the community and a hope for our future."

The new City Hall is steeped in symbolism. For instance, the exterior pinnacle of the
building is 97 feet (for the year 1997); the interior domed ceiling is 54 feet (the height of
the record-breaking flood); three steps and three flags at the entryway signify the
intertwined recovery efforts of the federal, state and local governments. A heart-shaped
monument lies near the entrance, thanking those in neighboring communities who helped in East Grand Forks' hour of desperation.

And, two evergreens are planted outside City Hall. Each Christmas, Stauss said, the evergreens are decorated "to remind us to give to other people in their time of need."

Standing tall

To understand these people who are so proud to be standing on their feet (albeit with pockets full of bank loans for rebuilding homes and businesses), one first must understand what brought them to their knees.

It was two rivers - the Red and the Red Lake River. When 98.6 inches of record-breaking
snowfall melted and mixed with an even greater melt gushing from the south, the rivers
ripped out the heart and chewed off the appendages of this town.

Water overflowed earthen levees like waves washing away kids' sandcastles. The deluge
forced almost all 9,000 residents to evacuate.

All but seven houses were flooded.

Seven feet of water filled RiverWalk Centre, the downtown mall known then as Holiday Mall.

Early on, in coffee shops and on call-in shows, some surmised it would be the end of East Grand Forks, viewed as the poor, uneducated cousin of Grand Forks.

Down but not out

To be sure, the flood of 1997, now five years in the rear-view mirror, contributed to about
1,500 people leaving town, according to demographers' pre-flood estimates and the 2000
census.

But this is not a down-and-out town.

"We're not looking back. We're looking forward," said Henry Tweten, an attorney and City
Council member who's lived here all of his 78 years. "We know the future belongs to those who prepare for it. We're prepared for a bright future."

East Grand Forks residents haven't replaced what they lost. They've built something new,
something better.

Cases in point:
• Something in the range of $300 million has or will be coming into East Grand Forks in
state and federal aid to build dikes and housing and restore businesses, schools, streets,
water and light utilities. "This community could not have survived without the help of the
state and federal government," Stauss said.

• After the water wiped the center of the city clean, in came a bunch of businesses, the
likes of which hadn't been seen in East Grand Forks. The flagship is Cabela's, a mecca for folks who like to fish, hunt and enjoy the outdoors.

• Across the street is Riverwalk Centre, now home to specialty boutiques and a huge
craft-supply store called Crafts Direct.

• Nearly 400 new homes have been built since the flood, and city leaders hope another 60 will be built the coming year on the strength of incentives like interest buy-downs and
$10,000 boosts to help buy lots (which average $12,000 to $14,000).

• Facing the river is a new "restaurant row." Lined up abreast with outdoor decks facing the water are Whitey's, Mike's Pizza, Applebees and The Blue Moose.

Business is great, said Whitey's manager Colleen Bushy, buoyed by events at the new Alerus Center and Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks.

• A new library, built with federal funds and equipped with local funds, is billed as something to entice young families to build homes in a community which cares about education and literacy.

• Despite the destruction of property, the overall value of East Grand Forks property is
$30 million more today, said Jim Richter, economic development and housing director.

Some of those new properties, like the 18-month-old MeritCare Clinic, will soon will be
expanding. Likewise, neighboring PRACS may move into MeritCare's old space, said
PRACS owner Dr. Jim Carlson. PRACS tests generic vs. brand name drugs on human
subjects.

Carlson said PRACS paid out $1 million in study fees in East Grand Forks last year.
He said he chose East Grand Forks for two reasons. First, he said, "Grand Forks was too
busy to answer my phone calls" when he was planning to expand his Fargo business
northward. And second, "There isn't one person in the region who doesn't know where
Whitey's is - so everybody can find us. That's the key to getting clients to come. They can find us."

• Up next for construction is the Red River Regional Visitor Center. Essentially, it will be a
campground within the city. It will stand where the Sherlock Park neighborhood once
housed families.

Here, a full-service 140-site campground will be built. Accommodations will be made for
picnics, fishing, bird watching, boat launches, plus bicycle and pedestrian trails. It is billed
as the pilot project for the 1,200-mile long Greenway on the Red, designed to encourage
people to enjoy the river without living on its flood-prone banks.

By spring 2003, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources project manager Helen Cozzetto expects 400 to 500 people will be in the campground each weekend.

Aches abide

Of course, the successes don't erase the human hurts wrought by the flood. Every single
person here experienced his or her own tragedy. Every single person felt the ache of
homelessness, of having no belongings, or at least not knowing if their belongings
survived. For weeks or months they lived in tents, trailers, neighboring towns' rental
houses and with relatives. They drained bank accounts to put a roof back over their
family's heads, And, as economic development Richter said, most business owners live
with the shadow of hefty SBA (Small Business Administration) loans over their head.
Many, though, count business as good.

Jack and Glenna Leedahl, who own Jack's Shoes, recently doubled their store from 800 to
1,600 square feet in Riverwalk Centre. He chose the site because it's across from Crafts
Direct, which tends to attract women who shop there while their husbands go across the
street to Cabela's.

Same for Greg Stennes of Whitey's, marking its 77th year as the best known watering hole in East Grand Forks, and maybe Grand Forks, too.

"This year I felt like we turned the corner and the stress level went down," Stennes said. "It just felt like we were making a good living. It feels like Whitey's is supposed to feel. The stress and awkwardness of recovery are over."

Stauss isn't quite so sure that extends to all people. He describes some people as
"recovered" and some as "recovering."

"One of the deepest things the people in this town feel is a debt to the thousands of people who donated money to us here," said Mike Pokrzywinski, owner of a pet grooming business.

"We don't want them to point to East Grand Forks in 10 years and say their donation was a colossal waste of money."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Deneen Gilmour at (701) 241-5525

 

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