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Wednesday, January 04, 2017



The protests were clearly the loudest story of the year dominating local media and attracting substantial national attention. I see three separate stories in the protests:

Standing Rock -- During the extensive public meetings preceding the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Standing Rock Sioux were largely absent. The tribe began protests as contractors prepared to drill a final piece of the pipeline under the Missouri River near the reservation. The tribe’s ostensible opposition to the river crossing was concern about water supply, but the real grievances ran much deeper. They are an impoverished tribe that has been a spectator to ND’s growing prosperity. They feel further left behind. While pipeline completion is temporarily suspended, the Grand Forks Herald labeled it a “Pyrrhic Victory” which left the tribe worse off.

Activists & Environmentalists -- The protests became a magnet for an array of protestors from around the country backed by $11 million of donations and skillful use of social media. Many were practiced demonstrators prepared to provoke authorities and get national media attention. The tribe lost control of its issues which morphed into a national demonstration against fossil fuels.

Local & State Government -- Generally, county and state officials did it right. They used appropriate levels of force to control protestors and protect property. Communications were factual and well received within the state. But outside the state something went wrong, as the Forum put it, ND lost the argument. The state was inexperienced with political demonstrations and high tech media battles.


All the way to summer, Burgum ran from behind as a candidate for governor, an unknown long shot with perhaps too much glitz for ND. Today he is governor -- what happened? It helped tremendously that his Republican opponent was overconfident and Democratic opposition was nowhere to be found. Voters were ready for a change and Burgum’s “do more with less” motto struck a chord. The man that gave downtown Fargo a new life is ready to work on the state.


Burgum’s real estate deals were key to the revitalization of downtown Fargo -- Kilbourne is his investment vehicle. His deals usually involve large property tax credits in exchange for renovating old commercial buildings. One columnist called the credits subsidies for the rich. In 2016 alone, Kilbourne bought 11 downtown properties plus the historic Black Building where $8 million of improvements are underway. The latest deal is a partnership to build a $100 million high-rise tower on Broadway eligible for $15 million of tax credits. To reduce potential conflicts, Gov. Burgum said he will remove himself from active management of Kilbourne.


ND’s economy was broadsided by a continuing dual ag and oil downturn -- GDP in the state dropped six percent in 2015. Farm commodity prices were low for the fourth straight year in 2016; oil prices were also down, but strengthened during the year. A special session of the legislature reduced state budgets -- slumping sales taxes were the main villain. At year end there was optimism that 2016 was a floor and a better year lay ahead.


The year saw a shift of attitude about Somali refugees and Lutheran Social Services, the agency responsible for their resettlement. The main concern was cost to local taxpayers. ND is first in the nation for resettlements as a percentage of population. The mayor of Grand Forks said a modest number of Somali resettlements last year were followed by hundreds of secondary immigrants. In Minnesota, which has been taking Somali refugees since the 1980s, 60 percent of possibly 70,000 Somali refugees live in poverty. The Star Tribune viewed Minnesota Somalis as a “national security crisis.” In Fargo, a member of the city commission called LSS resettlements an “unfunded mandate.”


College sports in ND hit a high water mark in 2016. Early in the year, UND’s hockey team won a national championship, while NDSU won its fifth consecutive national football championship. Both schools won their respective football conferences in the fall, but lost national playoff games.


If you plotted media references to Carson Wentz on a scatter graph, they would be a faint pattern early in the year turning into a dense cloud by the time the NFL season began. Wentz was quarterback for the champion NDSU football team and drafted number two by the the NFL Philadelphia Eagles. Through a quirk of circumstances, he became a rookie starting quarterback who enjoyed surprisingly early success. He created a frenzy among ND youth and spent his weekends on endorsement deals.


This is a $3 billion project to build a 36-mile ditch west of Fargo to divert a flooding Red River around the city. Although acknowledging diversion is the only solution, the Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources denied needed permits, blocking the project and adding to its cost. Moorhead leaders contend the administration of Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton is ignoring their needs.


In business theory, “clusters” can be the key to success in an industry, that is, a group of organizations supporting the same industry. The Grand Forks area has an enviable cluster of assets supporting Unmanned Aerial Systems. To start out, it is one of the few FAA-approved test sites. It has the GFAFB and related Grand Sky UAS business park. UND was first in the nation with a UAS degree program, has a 66,000 square foot academic center and a Center for Innovation fostering 10 drone businesses. The Red River Valley has other drone activities in Fargo and aspires to be Drone Valley.


A blogger became a newsmaker. In prior years, Port ran a popular ND political blog. The blog was politically conservative and somewhat “in your face.” His commentaries began to appear in Forum Communications papers this year and, eventually, he joined the Forum staff where he produces news and commentary. He is often first with a news item -- some are the result of his independent digging. His work as a Forum columnist has grown more moderate and professional. 

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