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Grand Forks plans for sustained growth

GRAND FORKS — A number of good things are going for Grand Forks.

Progress is being made on plans for an unmanned aerial systems business park at Grand Forks Air Force Base, and city and state leaders are optimistic that the base soon will be selected as one of six federal UAS test sites.

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A billion-dollar fertilizer plant, the first for North Dakota, is proposed for a site just outside the city.

Several other businesses are expanding or relocating to the city, contributing to a pattern of steady growth that has included a mini housing boom and multiple new retail and hotel developments.

And while growth is a story not unique to the state in recent years, one factor differentiates Grand Forks from other communities: location.

“Grand Forks is being looked at from a strategic location standpoint,” said Klaus Thiessen, president and CEO of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp.

The city provides a central base for access to both U.S. coasts, which is a selling point for several companies considering locating in Grand Forks, he said.

Regionally, the city serves as a midpoint between the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota and the Port of Duluth-Superior. Its proximity to thousands of college students is another selling point for businesses looking to establish or expand where a workforce is readily available, Thiessen said.

Access to the Bakken

Certainly, the city’s easy access to the Bakken via U.S. Highway 2 is not lost on local leaders. About a year ago, a collaborative marketing effort was launched to attract Bakken-related companies to the community, emphasizing that companies could avoid dealing with workforce shortages and a lack of housing and business space by relocating to Grand Forks and commuting a few hours to the Oil Patch when necessary.

The initiative achieved some success, drawing several manufacturers to the area. Among them was Steffes Corp., which, having grown weary of the constant turnover at its Dickinson plant, opened a Grand Forks facility at the end of 2012 in hopes that it could attract and retain skilled workers.

Rodger Pearson, Steffes’ Grand Forks division manager, said the first year of operations has proven that the company’s decision was a wise one.

“The skilled and professional employees that we have hired since we opened have exceeded our expectations for safety, quality and productivity,” he said.

The company’s Grand Forks staff has grown from 27 employees at the end of last year to 80 employees currently, and Pearson said he expects the company to continue to grow as it diversifies to serve manufacturers in addition to the oil industry.

Grand Sky

Much attention is also being paid to the development of the UAS business park and the air base’s potential to become a federal UAS test site.

In October, the U.S. Air Force announced its intent to sign an enhanced use lease with Grand Forks County to develop the park, known as Grand Sky, on 217 acres at the base. FD Stonewater and Lynxs Group was selected to develop the master plan for the park, which could begin construction in the spring.

Northrop Grumman has said it will anchor the park, creating 50 to 500 jobs at its offices there. When complete, the park could provide up to 2,000 jobs over the next 20 years.

The attraction for both the business park and the test site again hinges heavily on location, in addition to an existing knowledge base and potential workforce. Theissen said establishment of the business park was spurred by the fact that multiple higher-learning institutions in the area provide UAS-related training, including:

- Northland Community and Technical College in East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls, Minn.

- The University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

- Lake Region State College in Devils Lake.

The Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research, Education and Training is located at UND, and the university is the first in the world to offer a four-year UAS degree.

“We have this base of education and training and, more importantly, we’re producing the people they need,” Theissen said. “And we are at the leading edge. We’re not just saying we want to be, we are considered to be at the leading edge internationally in a number of areas for education and training.”

Value-added agriculture

The city’s economy is diversifying, but the mainstay of Grand Forks’ economy will continue to be value-added agriculture.

A number of companies in this sector have recently announced expansions, including Philadelphia Macaroni Co., Reile’s Transfer and Delivery Inc., Black Gold Farms and True North Equipment.

Thiessen said the presence of these types of companies and their recent expansions are representative of the steady growth in the area due to a strong ag economy.

In May, Northern Plains Nitrogen announced plans to locate a $1.7 billion fertilizer plant near Grand Forks. The plant would use natural gas from the Bakken to produce about 2,400 tons of ammonia per day, which would be converted to other products and used by farmers throughout the Midwest and several Canadian provinces.

NPN Chairman Darin Anderson said the company hoped to raise $3 million to $9 million through private investors by year’s end to support a front-end engineering design study, which could be complete by the end of 2014.

The plant is expected to begin operating in 2017. He said proximity to cropland, Bakken oil fields and a natural gas pipeline were factors when the group set out to select the plant site, and Grand Forks met those criteria. In addition, he said, city leaders have been supportive of the project and willing to help wherever necessary.

“They’ve been very accommodating,” he said. “The willingness and ability of the economic development team has put the company in a great position.”