The Forks continue flood recovery plans

Minnesota/North Dakota State Roundup More than a year after floods devastated Grand Forks, N.D., and its Minnesota cousin, East Grand Forks, the recovery is beginning to take shape

Published July 1, 1998  | July 1998 issue

"Very few communities have the opportunity to rebuild and plan some things from scratch. How lucky to participate in the process of re-creating a city," says Grand Forks, N.D., business leader Hal Gershman. That spirit is evident throughout the Forks as the two cities try to put the 1997 flood behind them and go forward.

Since the floodwaters receded last summer, Grand Forks and its smaller neighbor across the Red River, East Grand Forks, Minn., have been transformed. "What the flood has done," says Jim Richter, executive director of East Grand Forks' Economic Redevelopment and Housing Authority, "is accelerate the process of evolution in the community." People who were mobile left more quickly; some who planned retirement did so sooner. But while both cities lost residents during and immediately after the flood, sources say both cities' populations have bounced back and are now stable.

Some estimate that there was a loss of $400 million in personal wealth of Grand Forks residents as a result of the flood. John O'Leary, executive director of the Grand Forks Office of Urban Development, gave the example of the owner of three fast-food restaurants who lost $400,000, and who has since replaced much of his worth with debt.

Housing stock in both cities was also greatly affected. In Grand Forks, a city of 52,000, more than 1,000 houses were destroyed by the flood—more than one in every 10 single-family homes, and many of those lost were older and considered affordable. East Grand Forks, with a population of 9,000, lost between 5 percent and 10 percent of its housing. It is estimated that nine of 10 homeowners in both cities lost more than half their homes' preflood values.

Richter says that East Grand Forks needs to replace about 400 housing units. And like Grand Forks, East Grand Forks lost mostly older, affordable homes that cannot be replaced for less than $80,00 to $130,000.

But there is good news, too: In East Grand Forks four new schools are under construction and five new businesses have opened, according to Richter. And across the river in Grand Forks, 220 new homes have been built and downtown commercial space is filled as soon as it comes back on line.

Perhaps the most visible rebuilding project is the Grand Forks downtown business district. In addition to the flooding, fire destroyed 11 downtown buildings, leaving a gaping hole in the heart of the community. But a master plan for the downtown and the riverfront is well under way:

  • Two office buildings, called the Corporate Center, are under construction and scheduled to open next summer. Tenants will include First National Bank, law offices and other businesses flooded or burned out.
  • The Grand Forks Herald newspaper, which lost its entire operation in the fire/flood, has rebuilt downtown. The peak of the building reaches 97 feet, a symbolic reminder of the flood year.
  • An old downtown theater in the process of restoration at the time of the flood opened in spring as the city's Empire Arts Center, despite $150,000 in flood damages.
  • County and state governments are building a combined downtown service center that will employ 750.

O'Leary says the Corporate Center was developed because many preflood downtown businesses could not afford to rebuild on their own. "There's not a lot of profit margin" for small businesses, O'Leary says. "A remarkable thing happened when the Corporate Center was announced," he says. The burned-out First National Bank building was sold to a California developer willing to make a substantial investment to rebuild because he saw the opportunity to profit, O'Leary says. "We've seen the sunrise downtown."

Planning so it can't happen again

But the biggest issue faced by both cities was how to avoid a repeat disaster. Following studies, hearings and acceptance of financial realities, a plan to build a series of dikes was adopted to control future flooding.

The dike is expected to cost more than $300 million; with Grand Forks share of the cost at $104 million and East Grand Forks at $46 million, both cities are seeking funding from their respective states. Construction is expected to begin during 2000 and take about five years to complete.

Citizens are concerned about rising taxes to pay for the dike system, say sources from both cities. "There's not a lot of wiggle room," Gershman says.

East Grand Forks Mayor Lynn Stauss says that at least 1,000 families still face thousands of dollars of flood repair costs and can't be asked to pay higher taxes for anything, including dike construction. Stauss adds that the goal of East Grand Forks' government is to avoid raising property taxes for five years, giving residents time to get back on their feet. While a greenway will be constructed and shared by the Forks, Stauss says his city can ill afford to lose 500 residential and more than 20 business tax-paying properties that will be claimed by the dike. And in Grand Forks, an additional 195 homes along the planned dike will need to be moved or demolished.

Nonetheless, as part of its downtown plan, Grand Forks has designed dual-purpose space on the dike's greenway that will provide recreation and festival space, with an amphitheater and lighting system that can withstand flooding. The ultimate suggestion, though—to turn lemons into lemonade—may be the one by Kathy Gershman, Hal's wife: Create a flood study institute at the University of North Dakota, using local experience and academic expertise, to be the country's ultimate source of flood-related research and information.

Kathy Cobb