For HB Sound & Light and other businesses, Grand Forks’ Growth Fund gives a boost

The company managed to weather the pandemic, but barely after the virus ended all kinds of important events and drastically reduced demand for its sound and light production services. Co-owner Tricia Lunski said the company had tried to switch to supporting online events, but was offering significantly lower revenues.

The company has had to rely on creditors over the past year. One of them was Grand Forks, which recently offered $ 150,000 in a low-interest loan program tailored to businesses affected by COVID.

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“It was like our only option was bankruptcy. When (the pandemic) started, we just got call after call after call from people canceling,” Lunski said. “We have a lot of equipment, we have a lot of staff. There just weren’t a lot of options for a while.

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The loan was an important part of the recovery of the business. But it comes from a city agenda that can be hard to explain – it’s an “arm” of Grand Forks, controlled by the city’s “alter ego”. Or, perhaps, it is operated by the “first cousin” of city council.

It’s the Grand Forks growth fund, and it’s controlled by the city’s Jobs Development Authority. And for someone who is not constantly inside City Hall, it can be difficult to know exactly what it is and what exactly it is doing. Metaphors don’t always help.

But the Growth Fund and JDA have been making headlines lately, with executives weighing down loans to a local drone company, a data center, a brewery and more. Key executives have also been closely involved in promoting a new career and technology center, which is one of the community’s top priorities this summer.

It seems that whenever the city is about to take a big step forward, the Growth Fund is involved. So think of this as an introduction to one of the city’s most essential programs – and, in some ways, the most unique.

The Growth Fund is a flow of money, funded by a portion of the city’s sales tax, for local economic development. The Jobs Development Authority, or JDA, oversees it, with help from the Growth Fund Committee, a group of local leaders who first examine potential businesses and report their findings to the JDA.

And this is where some confusion begins: the JDA is a panel of municipal leaders made up of the Municipal Council and the mayor, making the distinction between the economic group and the Town hall a mere formality. The JDA is really just the city council.

“Although they are separate entities, it is virtually indistinguishable in the eyes of the public, whether it is the city or the JDA,” said Meredith Richards, longtime member of Town Hall. which deals with economic development issues.

The Growth Fund was founded in the late 1980s. Since then, it has been one of the city’s most important tools for stimulating local economic growth, with loans and grants helping to stimulate the economy. local.

In the mid-1990s, local leaders saw a huge success with the funding, helping to create more than 1,000 local jobs by 1996, according to Herald records. At the time, an official involved with the fund said it was a significant departure from federal funding, which was designed to meet federal goals, and not necessarily corporate goals at the time. seeking help. And that was a big help in tackling the brain drain that would send young job seekers to the Twin Cities or to the West Coast.

The Growth Fund was particularly useful after the 1997 floods, when it became a channel for public money – especially federal money – to save and support the private sector. This has since helped keep local businesses afloat after the flood waters receded.

It has remained one of the city’s most important economic development tools, supported both by the sales tax that created it and its own income, such as its loans. An example: The city used the growth fund to buy the downtown Herald building in 2019 for around $ 2.75 million, pursuing plans to use it as a business incubator.

City documents show that it is expected to maintain a cash balance of around $ 15 million over the next several years (although millions are often limited for matching grants, loans and other uses. ).

Here’s another layer of confusion, however: JDA and Growth Fund should not be confused with Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corporation. It is a completely different entity, which obtains funds from the city, county and local businesses. It largely pursues the same goals and relies on public funds, but it is an independent organization that exists outside of city hall, aimed at recruiting and supporting business interests in the region.

“A fun fact – and maybe you’ve heard that,” said Keith Lund, president and CEO of the Local Economic Development Corporation. “But I was told that Grand Forks was the first city in the United States to devote a portion of the sales tax to economic development.”

It’s hard to say if that’s true all these years later. But Lund, like everyone in the growth fund’s orbit, is extremely proud of the work the group has done. City administrator Todd Feland is no exception.

“It’s really, how do we partner with the private sector to stimulate – no pun intended – community growth? Said Féland.

This year, HB Sound and Light is once again serving a host of major community events, including two in the coming week: the four-day Greenway Takeover Festival and the 9/11 inauguration of the Memorial Park. veterans. The company organizes the first and ensures the production of the second; both are expected to attract hundreds, possibly thousands of participants.

And Lunski and the rest of the company say they’re keeping an eye out for COVID – which, for now and likely longer, is still a threat to business.

“COVID is pretty scary right now. The numbers are rising, but because (the Greenway Takeover Festival) is an outdoor event, we have that on our side,” she said. “We read the CDC guidelines every day.”

Margie D. Carlisle