'We can do it': Sens. Hoeven, Cramer and Gov. Burgum optimistic Fufeng gap can be filled
John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer feel the swing and miss on Fufeng has actually, as Cramer says it, “put Grand Forks on the map.”
GRAND FORKS — When the Cargill malt plant in eastern North Dakota announced in 2018 that it would be closing, local, state and federal leaders hustled to help find a replacement.
The result: Archer Daniels Midland announced in May of 2021 that it would open a $350 million soybean crushing facility at the former factory, a massive structure just north of Interstate 94 at Spiritwood, near Jamestown.
U.S. Sen. John Hoeven can name other examples, too, including the Marathon renewable diesel refinery in Dickinson . And last year, Rainbow Energy took over for Great River Energy at North Dakota’s Coal Creek Station.
“There have been a number of instances where a business was leaving or one didn’t show up that we counted on and we have gone to work to get somebody else or another company to fill in,” Hoeven said in an interview Thursday, Feb. 2.
In short, Hoeven and U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer say, good things can come from seemingly bad circumstances. Both are optimistic some sort of development can be found to fill an economic gap that has opened in Grand Forks.
Late last month, the U.S. Department of the Air Force officially said the proposed Fufeng corn mill project — called by Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. President Keith Lund “the largest single private capital investment in the region’s history” — is a “significant threat to national security,” due to its ownership ties to China. Shortly after the Air Force's declaration became public, Mayor Brandon Bochenski said the project should be stopped. City Council members agree .
It likely has doomed the project; all that’s left is for the City Council to officially abandon it, which could happen as soon as the Monday, Feb. 6, council meeting.
Hoeven and Cramer — both of whom are North Dakota Republicans — feel the swing and miss on Fufeng has actually, as Cramer says it, “put Grand Forks on the map.”
“I agree with Kevin,” Hoeven said. “This not only helps bring more awareness nationally of Grand Forks, and what an exciting and dynamic community it is, but it’s also a great place for value-added agriculture. So now, let’s just find somebody else to do it with.”
Soon after the news broke, Hoeven, Cramer and Gov. Doug Burgum all made statements that in one way or another pledged support to help the city find a replacement for Fufeng, which had not yet broken ground but which still held great economic promise for local economic developers despite its controversial history.
But what kind of support? And how can state and federal delegates help?
“It could be any number of things,” Cramer said. “Particularly, those of us in Washington, we have an advantage — (Hoeven) having been governor and Bank of North Dakota president, and me having been an economic development director.”
That experience, Cramer said, could allow the delegates to “work with state and local development directors … and add, for what it’s worth, our muscle if there is any, or our Rolodex, or any way we can possibly do it."
Cramer said he and Hoeven already have discussed it.
Bochenski feels Grand Forks is set up for an easy transition to potentially land a big new business. It’s been a busy last few months for the city, which had been working with Fufeng but which also secured a big-time commitment from Epitome Energy late last year . After originally considering a spot in northwest Minnesota, American-owned Epitome now plans to build a $400 million soybean crushing plant on Grand Forks’ northwest edge.
And, in recent months, a dormant Northern Plains Nitrogen proposal has again made headlines , although local officials remain reserved . The fertilizer production facility — worth some $1.5 billion during initial discussions and possibly closer to $3 billion now — was first discussed a decade ago, but then went silent. In early 2022, its chief operating officer claimed construction could start later in the year , but that didn’t happen. Backers are still waiting for financing.
“We have the permits that are required ready, we own the land, we’re shovel ready,” Northern Plains Nitrogen Chief Operating Officer Larry Mackie said in December. “We just need an investor, and we will get an investor because this project makes so much sense.”
Nonagriculture projects also are making news in Grand Forks.
Last summer, a fleet of retired U.S. Global Hawk Block 30s arrived at the Grand Sky business and aviation park , where they will be used in hypersonic missile testing. To the layperson, it might seem inconsequential, but it strengthens the burgeoning facility while opening an opportunity for growth in the local unmanned aerial systems sector.
Also last year, the city announced it is considering building an indoor multi-use sports complex .
Although the Fufeng project didn’t break ground and the company still owns the land, Bochenski and others believe it sets strong groundwork to land another big economic fish.
“The setup is sort of already there, and it’s tailor-made for somebody to step in, whether it’s one (company) or two,” Bochenski said. “It’s a big footprint.”
He believes the senators, the governor and others are committed to bringing agribusiness possibilities to North Dakota.
“I imagine they are going through their Rolodexes and seeing who they can bring in or what it would look like,” Bochenski said. “For now, it’s connections. But the next project that comes, they’ll be looking to help with infrastructure or other investments.”
“There is tons of infrastructure money out there right now. I have taken a lot of beatings about the head and shoulders for not just voting for the (federal) infrastructure bill but also for playing a lead role and putting it together,” he said. “There is a lot of funding out there for infrastructure — particularly normal transportation and water, but also some special project funds. No question, we would try to identify funds and I would go to the wall with the agencies to help in that regard, for sure.”
Burgum also said it could be more than just connections and advice.
“We also have state programs to support getting natural gas (eastward) and we continue to try to get more natural gas from western North Dakota to eastern North Dakota, and specifically along Highway 2,” the governor said. “We have support from the state Water Commission and could provide financial support from that standpoint, and the Bank of North Dakota stands ready to help. And we basically — as we do for all cities in North Dakota — have loan programs, grant programs, infrastructure programs and personnel whose job it is in (the state Department of Commerce) to help recruit companies like this to North Dakota.”
Hoeven worked with local leaders on Grand Sky , including discussions with anchor tenants Northrop Grumman and General Atomics. He says that kind of success can happen again.
“It’s relationships. It’s working with people and it’s just doing our jobs, whether it’s public policy aspects, helping with regulatory approval, all of those things,” he said. “... We already have a running start with the (Epitome Energy) soybean crush plant that was going to go to Crookston. Let’s build on that.
“We can do it.”