tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Inspiration in North Dakota

I would not have expected to find inspiration in the Grand Forks, North Dakota, but I did.

I was there the day after Christmas on business. It was my first trip to the cold, wind-swept outpost on the Red River. Previously, the only thing I knew about this town was what I gleaned from the news 10 years ago when the community was ravaged by floodwaters. Today, Grand Forks doesn’t look anything like those dismal images from the news footage.

It was April of 1997 and the Red River overflowed its banks by ten miles in both directions, swamping Grand Forks and its neighbor in Minnesota, East Grand Forks. Seventy percent of the people in Grand Forks had to be evacuated – 100 percent of the population in East Grand Forks had to leave. Water was standing 7 feet deep in downtown Grand Forks. As the water crested, a fire broke out in downtown, burning 11 buildings.

Pat Owens was the mayor at the time. She had been a secretary to three mayors before she decided to run for the job herself the previous November. She won with 75 percent of the vote. She is a 4-foot-11 dynamo who had to handle a far bigger job than she ever bargained for.

Owens and many other city leaders, including Randy Newman who I was meeting with on Dec. 26, worked for years to restore the community. Newman is president of Alerus Financial, which was called First National Bank back then. Newman kept the bank open, temporarily transferring operations to a Fargo office. He decided to keep the business in Grand Forks, even though the bank lost three buildings in downtown. Leaders from other communities wooed him, but he was not willing to abandon a heritage in the community that reached back more than a century.

Many of the businesses did leave, and so did a lot of the people. I am told there was a 20 percent turnover in the population. Many businesses, however, came to town, like Cabela’s, the big hunting and fishing store. Money from the federal government and insurance companies poured in and the people rebuilt. Today, downtown features many reconstructed and brand new buildings, including a beautiful six-story state office building. Hundreds of homes were repaired. Most of the homes located closest to the river were leveled. Tracts of land far from the river, today feature brand new homes where many of those displaced residents settled.

Within the last year, construction of a new dike has been completed. The huge wall combines a natural earthen barrier with decorative cement wall. In some places, panels can be removed from the wall in order to improve the view of the river when the water is at safe levels.

The other very challenging factor for Grand Forks during the 1990s, was the downsizing of the Air Force Base. The base, which at one time housed 15,000 people, today hosts about 2,000 people. Thirteen thousand people represent nearly a quarter of the town’s population, which today stands at around 50,000. The University of North Dakota, however, brings a lot of stability to the community. Gopher fans at the University of Minnesota are well aware of the school’s effort to elevate its football program to Division I, while the two have long been formidable Division I hockey foes.

To an outsider, Grand Forks looks like a success story. I feel bad for Owens, who lost her bid for re-election in 2000. Newman said she and other city leaders had to make “50 years worth of decisions in less than a year.” I am sure there were two sides or more to ever decision made; I can only imagine the level of emotional debate surrounding most of them. Perhaps it is more than even the best politician could manage.

Nonetheless, I applaud the people of Grand Forks. It is not easy to rebuild. It would be much easier to simply go someplace else. Just ask all those people who left New Orleans after Katrina. Earlier this week, I saw a pretty nice community, and I am inspired by what I know it must have taken to make it so.

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