We just got back from North Dakota last night after holding a Curbside Chat in East Grand Forks on Monday and then in Bismarck on Tuesday. These were great events with lots of good information shared, some tough questions asked and a solid foundation for ongoing discussion established. These two communities have some unique spatial characteristics brought about by their geography - East Grand Forks in the Red River Valley and Bismarck in relative isolation - and it was informative to see parts of each community as part of the trip.
I'm a little wiped out, not to mention behind on my work, and so this post is going to be just a short recap. We also have a Curbside Chat tonight closer to my home here in Nisswa, MN and tomorrow night in my hometown of Brainerd, so we have a little prep work to do as well.
I was driving as we went through Fargo and turned north. I was getting low on gas but, being from Minnesota where there is a gas station every two block to six miles, I did not think we would have trouble filling up out of town in a less congested area. As it becomes apparent to me that I have made a bad assumption, I inform Justin of our problem and he lets me know we are in trouble. There are no gas stations anywhere. Finally, we coasted on fumes to this one pump little shack on the side of the highway. Driving out I took this picture and, for a moment, longed to take this road instead of the highway we were traveling.
We got to Grand Forks on the North Dakota side of the river and got the familiar tour of the American town. First we hit the new developments on the edge of town, then we toured the older neighborhoods and then the downtown. When I was in the National Guard in 1997 we were mobilized for the floods that devastated the downtown. Justin, who went to college here, pointed out where buildings had been demolished and not replaced as well as ones that had. All in all, downtown Grand Forks was very nice and the traditional development pattern that surrounds it could easily be revitalized with a solid placemaking approach.
East Grand Forks seems to have suffered a little more under the suburban development model. While they have not attracted as much of the high-value development as Grand Forks, they have spent a lot of money widening their streets in the fashion we described here in our Brainerd/Baxter Strong Towns series:
- Where the money went
- Archeology of an historic corner
- Archeology of a neighborhood
- We spent how much to get what?
I was a little saddened to see - and I believe may have offended some by mentioning - the way they chose to terminate the neighborhood street that leads to the city hall. While the building is configured to look good from the road driving by, here is the unfortunate view of the dumpster and loading dock from the adjacent neighborhood.
For our chat in East Grand Forks we had a great turnout and lots of discussion. The presentation we give runs around 45 minutes, but with their contributions to the chat we found ourselves there three and a half hours. Not everyone stayed the entire time, but we had a good conversation. They are doing the right things with their infrastructure. They have studied the long-term cost of maintaining their streets and then put that in terms of a utility-type fee that is yet to be implemented. I am anxious to see how that works out for them - the approach is innovative and they have a good understanding of what needs to take place if they are to avoid the Ponzi scheme trap.
And to top it off, we were featured on the local news station that evening as well and, even though the segment was short, they seemed to get it.
We spent the night in Fargo after a late, late night pizza that had apparently been delivered first to neighboring Moorhead - our apologies to the individual staying in the Courtyard room 202 there who was probably woken up at midnight for our pizza. We headed out to Bismarck the next day.
A brief aside - at one point we stopped so I could grab a Mt. Dew out of the cooler in the back. The morning fog had been really thick and was just lifting as we pulled over on some random exit ramp. While Minnesota air is generally clear and clean, I was struck by how fresh the morning smelled in this part of North Dakota. So much so that I had Justin stick his head out the window to get his affirmation. Yeah, it was a beautiful day and I wish we had the time to linger longer.
In Bismarck we were hosted by the Downtowner's Association at the Dakota Theater. What a treat! We were greeted so warmly and I was really flattered by the people who said they are avid readers of the blog. And their questions during the chat - really superb. A couple I have thought more about and want to make part of an upcoming blog or podcast.
The Dakota Theater was really wonderful. There was no screen but that did not stop them from rigging up a box, ladder and white sheet for us that worked perfectly. They were all very kind and went out of their way to accommodate us.
I think we made a valuable connection there that we can build on and hopefully help Bismarck - an economic anomaly in today's America - to avoid the financial problems from growth that have plagued most of the rest of the country. Those that were there seemed to understand their good fortune as well as the educational challenges they face in learning from the rest of the country's mistakes.
We had a nice lunch downtown and then spent some time there before we headed out. It is really fabulous. They have a unique tax program there that allows them to capture tax revenues, similar to a tax increment mechanism, and put the money into a fund that is used to perpetuate improvements in the downtown. It was obvious that they had put the money to good use in many areas.
Unfortunately, we also learned that had spent some of the fund widening streets and doing other traffic things that were counterproductive to the sense-of-place there in the downtown. But that would be one of the few critiques - they definitely has a solid base in which to expand Strong Towns approaches throughout the community.
And we were also interviewed in Bismarck for the local TV station. I'm glad they picked the quote they did because, in the context of Bismarck, it was probably the most important idea to leave there.
After a long drive back and a short night we're now back to work and looking forward to seeing our friends in Central Minnesota tonight in Nisswa.