As the Red River Valley faces significant times of change – more people, a shifting economy, an influx of jobs – a few local leaders identified a need for one thing: connection. This lead to the creation of the Valley Prosperity Partnership, a group of the Valley’s most influential leaders that now meet regularly to identify common strategic economic development opportunities.
Now, as governor’s budgets are being prepared, they are speaking up on issues such as water security, tax credits, and entrepreneurship.
It began with Billy Marcil Sr., publisher and chairman of Forum Communications Company, and a conversation between him and the presidents at Grand Forks and Fargo-Moorhead’s Economic Development Corporation, Klaus Thiessen and Jim Gartin respectively.
“We both thought that would really be powerful if senior leaders throughout the Valley… would get together and form an organization to focus on certain goals within the Valley,” Gartin said.
The Red River Valley spans the borders of Minnesota and North Dakota. The region is anchored by the economic centers of Fargo-Moorhead and Grand Forks-East Grand Fork and Wahpeton-Breckenridge areas.
Marcil Sr. saw this is as such a necessity, that in 2012 he invested $100,000 into the creation of what is now the Valley Prosperity Partnership (VPP). Spurred on by the vision, they then asked 25 presidents and CEOs of major companies and universities to participate, Gartin said. An executive committee of investors was formed, made up of nearly two dozen business and higher education leaders.
Today, the committee is lead by two co-chairs, Tammy Miller, CEO of Border States Electric in Fargo, and Steve Burian, CEO of Advanced Engineering and Environmental Services. Jonathan Holth, co-owner of the Toasted Frog line of restaurants, is chair of the entrepreneurship subcommittee.
“We’ve been meeting every so often for the past year, discussing what we can do better,” Holth said. ” We want to build upon the current momentum in the Red River Valley to take it to the next level.”
They are currently working on their 2017 legislative agenda, Gartin said. In it, they are focusing on what they have deemed some of the most pressing issued in the Red River Valley.
Water: Speaking out on a failed promise
The first is not a new issue. In fact, it’s one that has had a solution in the works for decades: water security in the Red River Valley. Currently, having only one water source for the Valley places it in danger of drought, Gartin said.
“We’ve experienced long periods of drought. We rely on all our water resources coming from Red River,” Gartin said.
Over the years, as this issue has been brought up again and again to legislators in Bismarck, frustration has continued to mount.
“We’ve been promised these water sources for 30-40 years,” Gartin said. “What we’re really focused on is bringing water from the Missouri headwaters to our side of the state,” Gartin said.
Money: Incentivizing more investments
They’re hoping to pump more than water into the Valley. A survey the Valley Prosperity Partnership conducted earlier this year highlighted the need for greater access to capital. One way that policy in North Dakota can assist in that is to establish tax credit incentives around angel funds and venture capital, that encourage investors to come to Fargo, Gartin said.
“There’s a strong legislative root that we’d actually get rid of [the tax credits] all together and mandate that any funding go to North Dakota companies,” Gartin said. “What we [Valley Prosperity Partnership] want to make sure is that that doesn’t happen.”
Part of the legislative agenda for 2017 would ensure that these tax credits remain, if not increase, and protect the investors so that they’re able to survive in North Dakota, Gartin said. Restricting investing to North Dakota alone would snuff out any chance of bringing out-of-state investors here, he said, as well as make it nearly impossible for investors to survive in North Dakota’s current entrepreneurial climate.
“There’s no way [venture capital firms] could function. There’s not enough nascent tech coming out of the research universities,” Gartin said. “What we’ve seen with Arthur Ventures is that they end up bringing some of those [out-of-state] investors and market back to this area.”
“The real key right now is to save the program and have it written in such a way that it protects the angel funds for making good investments,” he said.
Startups: Building the entrepreneurial ecosystem
North Dakota may not have a big enough startup economy to support investors…yet. But another and most heavily emphasized objective of the Valley Prosperity Partnership is to support local economy by supporting the local entrepreneurs.
The first step there, Gartin said, is getting out of the way.
“We have to let the entrepreneurs run the programs,” he said.
Both in Fargo and in Grand Forks, this means supporting meet-ups and events such as Startup Weekend, individual industry meet-ups like Drone Focus, Game-makers meet-up, bitcoin groups, and others.
For Jonathan Holth, as a small business owner in the food industry, he knows how supporting a vibrant community in art and lifestyle makes a big difference. After all, the arts become a crucial selling point when marketing a city to prosepctive employees.
“When employers are recruiting, they take them [applicants] to restaurants and art galleries and showcase the community,” he said. “Arts and culture pieces play such a vital role in attracting talent.”
The Valley Prosperity Partnership is not a state funded group. It’s a group of the regions top leaders who put in their own time and money, with the purpose of giving the Valley a stronger voice in North Dakota, Gartin said.
“[The Red River Valley] is well over 60% of the state of North Dakota,” he said. “Our voices want to be heard. If we allow the people in Bismarck make decisions for us without voicing our opinions, we have big problems.”
Feature photo from the Greater Fargo-Moorhead Economic Development Corporation. Delore Zimmerman, Praxis Strategy Group CEO.