The recovery that never was

Dave Owen, Staff Writer

As residents of Grand Forks, we now have the dubious honor of remembering the 20th anniversary of the great flood of 1997, wherein the Red River crested above 50 feet and destroyed a large portion of the city/downtown area.

Shortly after the flood and the devastation it wrought, the people of Grand Forks were optimistic they would rebuild. They would overcome and the city would become greater than it ever was in the past. It is now, however, time for reflection on how well we have done to recover, and how we have progressed relative to the rest of the state in the past 20 years.

For the sake of fairness I will not be using the 1997 economic numbers as my starting point, I will be using 2001 instead. This allows four years for the dust to settle, and for the true economic state of Grand Forks to be revealed after the initial disaster relief; people will no longer be leaving the area, and federal disaster relief dollars will no longer be artificially boosting the productivity during the rebuild period. Additionally, in this analysis, I will be looking at Grand Forks relative to three areas; Bismarck, Fargo, and the state average in the hopes that a proper comparison can be made.

Lets first start with population growth. Overall, North Dakota grew by 15.7 percent. In 2001, Grand Forks had 48,894 people, growing by 12.3 percent until 2013 (the last year with publicly available Census data), whereas Fargo has grown by 23.4 percent, Bismarck by 19.7 percent. This is the first of a troubling series of statistics, which suggests that not only are people not flocking to Grand Forks for perceived opportunity relative to the rest of the state, but also people would much rather locate to Fargo if they intend to move to a city in our state.

Furthermore, Grand Forks is the only major city in the state to go against the trends of cities in North Dakota outperforming the state average when it comes to population growth, that is to say both of the other cities exceed state growth by a substantial percentage, (25.4 and 49) while Grand Forks under-performed (-21.6).

Of course some arguments can be made that this is largely a result of the oil boom, at least in terms of Bismarck, but to my knowledge there are no wells in the Fargo area, so something greater must be at play. It is at the very least clear, that in terms of population, Grand Forks has not only failed to recover, but fallen further behind after the flood.

Population growth isn’t everything, and indeed it could be argued that population is largely irrelevant when compared to quality of life and economic opportunity. While both of these are difficult to measure we can approximate the quality of life of a Grand Forks resident relative to his fellow North Dakotan’s in other cities by comparing the GDP per person to the two other metro areas.

For this analysis we are once again starting in 2001, and will end our analysis on the last year I have data for, 2014. In this instance, Grand Forks once again falls short. In 2001, Grand Forks was behind income’s for both Bismarck and Fargo, (-12.7 percent and -25.7 percent respectively), but this is to be expected, the recovery is just beginning and these things take time. For a recovery to be claimed, Grand Forks doesn’t even have to get to even with either of these cities, they merely have to be making progress in closing the gap.

As an example, if it went from -12.7/-25.7 to -10/-25, this could be called the beginnings of a recovery (granted a small one), but still some form of recovery. By this time in 2014, it is clear that not only has there been no recovery, but things have gotten worse. As of that year, Grand Forks sits at -14.4 percent and -28.4 percent, while Bismarck and Fargo have grown at about the same rate relative to each other.

Now that I’ve spent about 500 words simply laying out the data for my argument, we can begin to reach the conclusion. As this article is titled “The Recovery that Never Was,” it should be clear my opinions on the subject.

Simply put, Grand Forks never rebuilt and never managed to get close to its former glory, the city has not only failed to recover, but has failed to even keep pace with the growth of rivaling areas with similar laws and populations (Bismarck/Fargo). It is my opinion that the deficits seen in Grand Forks, and the explosion of growth in Fargo are directly related, we as a city have failed to provide an opportunity for the future generation who would be in their mid 30’s, and they abandoned ship for Fargo long ago.

Furthermore, it is unlikely that quality of life in Grand Forks will improve relative to the other cities, as they now have a two decade advantage over us, both politically and economically. Grand Forks could as it were grow at 2 percent per year for nearly a decade while Fargo and Bismarck grew at 0 percent, and we still would not have the economic powers or influence of Fargo, and would have just basically caught up to Bismarck.

This of course also speaks nothing of the inherent political influence held by cities of larger population or the political influence that is held by the capital city.

It is clear that on the 20th anniversary of the Grand Forks flood, we have failed to live up to our words of rebuilding and re-emerging as a great city of North Dakota. If we continue to pride ourselves on a fake recovery, and blind ourselves to the realities of the world, things will get worse as they have for the past decades, not better for Grand Forks.

Dave Owen is an opinion writer for the The Dakota Student. He can be reached at [email protected]