By Cindy Graffeo
Photos by Paul Flessland
Moorhead has challenges, and Cindy Graffeo understands that.
“We’re a different state, a different regulatory environment, and we have a different tax structure,” says Graffeo, the executive director of the Moorhead Economic Development Authority (EDA) who was hired a little more than a year ago. “We need to figure out what we’re good at, focus on what we’re better at and do a better job of telling that story.”
Graffeo, who was part of a team that helped transform downtown Eau Claire, Wisc., into a thriving city center, is hoping to do the same in Moorhead by helping it nd its niche and work “collaboratively but competitively” with its larger, more prominent neighbor to the west.
No. 1: Downtown Development
For me, Downtown is priority No. 1 because there’s so much potential and low-hanging fruit, and we have some great success stories that we can build on.
I see a lot of people point fingers to Fargo and say, “Why can’t we be that?”
Yes, historic buildings are fabulous. You can renovate those buildings and easily hang your hat on that charming old downtown. But the next-best thing to historic buildings is blank space. Moorhead has plenty. We are a blank canvas. We’re only limited by our imagination and what we want as a community.
So don’t look at Moorhead’s empty lots and abandoned buildings and feel disappointment and failure. Look around and see nothing but potential.
I think Downtown Moorhead is right at a tipping point. We’ve had some great success stories and developments, the area over by Moxie Java being one example. And we have three major projects that could be getting underway in 2017. Downtown Moorhead’s going to look a lot different.
What It Was: Aggregate Industries
What It Will Be: The Grove apartment complex & potential mixed-use building
The way you attract businesses is by creating rooftops, and I think the Grove project— Phase I and II are apartment buildings, and then Phase III has potential for either another apartment building or mixed-use—is a large, attractive development.
It’s also a great example of state and local incentives coming together and making a project feasible that otherwise wouldn’t have been, due to the nature of the site.
Knights of Columbus
What It Was: Knights of Columbus hall
What It Will Be: Three-story apartment building
At the Knights of Columbus Hall, they found contamination on the site, but between state-level deed grants and local-level incentives, that same kind of recipe/magic mix is going to be coming forward on the Knights of Columbus Hall as well.
8th & Main
What It Was: Tesoro gas station
What It Will Be: TBD – soon going out for RFP (request for proposal)
The 8th & Main property is a City of Moorhead-owned parcel. The city acquired the former Tesoro gas station and the building right next to it to put in that turn lane as part of our downtown road project last summer. We’ve torn down the buildings and are prepared to go out for RFP for redevelopment of that site.
I’m really excited about this project because it really does have the potential to be the welcome mat of Downtown, and whatever we put there could be there for the next 150 years. So we want to make sure we’re doing it right.
Developing Industrial Land
A lot of Downtown Moorhead is former industrial land, and so we have contamination issues and brown fields. Anytime you have solvents, gases, basically any pollution that gets down into the ground, when you’re digging into dirt and have things that are coming out into the groundwater or air, you need to protect the people and do what’s best for your city. And that can be a major undertaking.
For a business, it’s a lot easier to say, ‘I’m going to buy this green eld that’s never been developed so I know that it’s safe. I’m not going to run into any environmental surprises halfway through the dig.’ That’s why you need the incentives and tax-increment financing (TIF) and those mechanisms to make it attractive and worthwhile for a business to take on the risk of a contaminated site.
No. 2: Industrial Park
• Moorhead has two industrial parks. The original one, located near 25th Avenue and Southeast Main Avenue, is home to companies such as Personal Touch Embroidery and A-1 Automotive. Moorhead owns more than 500 acres of land dedicated to future industrial growth.
• The MCCARA Industrial Park is located south of I-94 and is home to companies such as RDO, Pactiv and many more.
• There are shovel-ready parcels to accommodate a variety of business needs–whether it’s interstate visibility or rail options. Unserviced land is leased out to area farmers for agriculture.
• In 2016, six parcels of land in the industrial park were sold or put under control.
No 3: Support from State Legislature
For 2017, the City of Moorhead has three legislative goals, which have been consistent for the past two years.
First, Moorhead is requesting more than $40 million in bonding for the 20/21st Street grade separation (underpass) near the high school. The intersection is a public safety issue and is the top priority. Funding for this underpass was included in the failed bonding bill last year, and so we hope to see it stay on the table for 2017.
In addition, if legislation allow, we would love to see funding for preliminary engineering and environmental work on the potential 11th Street Downtown underpass. I believe this could be a boon for economic development in the area.
When you have two sets of train tracks that run the parallel of your Downtown, people will take the underpass or just about any other route. We’d love to have another Downtown underpass so that there’s no reason to avoid driving in our downtown.
Second, Moorhead is seeking permanent and continued funding for our Border Cities program. This appropriation supports a variety of programs that help level the playing eld between Moorhead and our friends to the west. The 2016 tax bill included $3 million in Border Cities funding but was vetoed. Our goal in 2017 is for the tax bill to not only include an appropriation but for it to be a permanent one.
Lastly, we would love for Moorhead to have more local discretion when it comes to building codes. This would help with minimizing the differences that local builders face in building codes between Moorhead and Fargo.
No 4: Entrepreneurial services
One group economic developers like to pay lip service to is entrepreneurs. We like to talk about how we need to be supporting them as much as possible, but we haven’t done enough of that in the past on the Moorhead side of the river. We need to do more.
One of the things we’re working on is the feasibility of a business incubation center. We have a student group from Dragon Consulting at the MSUM College of Business that is going to be helping us with that research.
Prairie Den fills their specific niche, but there’s a wide spectrum of business incubation centers, and what I picture the Moorhead one to be is, “I need a desk for 20-40 hours a week.” It’s about seeing whether or not that’s still needed.
10 years ago, an entrepreneur really needed a desk and an internet connection and a computer. And if you gave them those tools, that’s all they needed to succeed. That’s kind of the question we’re asking: Is that still the formula?
Everyone carries a computer in their pocket these days so is that really the barrier to entry anymore? And if not, what do we need to do? What can we be doing to better support entrepreneurs in our community than we do right now? And we’re looking into that question.
No 5: Digital Communication
The EDA is working to do a better job of communicating with our business community and prospects.
When I started, the EDA had a Facebook page, but the only thing being posted was public meeting notices. We’ve been focused on launching our e-newsletter, being active on social media, and launching an electronic survey component to our business-retention- and-expansion program.
It’s about making sure we’re getting out and talking to the current businesses we have and representing ourselves to prospective businesses, as well as doing a better job to have the digital footprint we were lacking.
The strategy I have, specifically for the EDA’s social media, is to try and position the EDA to be that great connector and a resource for information—to be the first call when a business is looking at expanding or locating. We also want to provide professional- development information and get the right people to the right table at the right time to make things happen.
Commercial Facade Loan Program
One thing the EDA (Economic Development Authority) has done is in the last year is launch the Commercial Facade Loan Program. The Facade Loan program allows for up to $25,000 interest-free for businesses to do awnings, signage, lighting, really whatever they need to give their building a facelift.
Learn more about the Facade Loan program other City of Moorhead incentive programs here: