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ND’s efficiency/access tradeoff hinders Grand Forks

Lloyd Omdahl's column in Monday's Grand Forks Herald (and Jamestown Sun) doesn't mention Fargo. But Grand Forks readers ought to see that word when they read between the lines.

Omdahl's column is a terrific complement to Herald staff writer Sam Easter's story from last week, "Great debates: Grand Forks history shows division over big projects."

As Easter documents, Grand Forks has long had a tough time getting to "Yes" on big projects such as the library. "It seems — it's just this perception — when you go to other communities, they seem to do much better," City Council member Ken Vein says in the story.

But Grand Forks residents shouldn't feel too bad, because North Dakotans as a whole tend to share this resistance to change. That's because "North Dakotans like access, even when it means throwing efficiency under the bus," Omdahl writes.

"People want a role — a big role — in government. Having many points at which citizens can be a part of government implements the cultural idea that everybody is important and should 'have a say.'"

There's no better analysis of the stop-and-go process that has held up development of Grand Forks' Arbor Park.

But what about Fargo? For that matter, what about Bismarck?

In both cities, access-loving North Dakotans have mustered the efficiency to get projects done. In 2004, Fargo voters passed an 18-month, half-cent sales tax to build a new downtown library and two branch libraries with 62 percent of the vote.

And in Bismarck, the Chamber of Commerce and a steering committee recently raised $8 million to renovate the Community Bowl, in part to keep the 1990s-era facility's status as host of the state high-school track meet.

It's always hard to compare communities, because it's so easy to selectively choose examples to make a point. And whenever Grand Forks frets about Fargo or Bismarck, it should remember City Council President Dana Sande's perceptive comment in Easter's story:

"My opinion is that people (in Grand Forks) are generally happy. And when you're generally happy, your tendency is to vote no for change."

But even contented populations can learn from other communities, especially where big and expensive projects are concerned.

Furthermore, Grand Forks' sense that Fargo, in particular, has a stronger efficiency mindset goes back not just years but decades. Where development is concerned, "Fargo means business and Grand Forks means hassles," a Grand Forks City Council member said in a Herald story on the subject in 2003.

Grand Forks' policies strike us as being much friendlier to growth than they were then. Now, it's our hope that Grand Forks' determination will follow suit — that the city and its people will follow the Grand Forks Park District's lead, in mapping out an ambitious project (as the district did with Choice Health & Fitness) and finding ways to get it done.