In geological terms, the Red River Valley starts north of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and proceeds along the river forming the boundary between Minnesota and North Dakota all the way to where the two states meet South Dakota. In economic terms, the Valley is seeing waves of investment from Grafton to Grand Forks-East Grand Forks, to Fargo-Moorhead and to Wahpeton further south.
"We're recruiting people as well as businesses," says Lisa Gulland-Nelson, vice president, marketing and public relations for the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation, with "a quality of life that people have no idea of," she says.
Life Sciences Influencer
Biotech innovator Aldevron has a few ideas. One of them is investing and hiring where its roots are. The global provider of custom produced nucleic acids, proteins, and antibodies, headquartered in Fargo, is moving forward with a $30-million, 70,000-sq.-ft. cleanroom manufacturing complex.
"Our building will be the world's largest and most advanced plasmid DNA manufacturing facility," said Michael Chambers, Aldevron CEO.
As an undergrad, Chambers started the company with grad student John Ballantyne 20 years ago in lab space on the campus of North Dakota State University (NDSU) in Fargo.
"He has grown the company organically since, and we employ about 200 in this region," in addition to 230 around the world, says James Brown, vice president of corporate development for Aldevron. "There's a very good work ethic here," says Brown. "He loves Fargo and the community, and is grateful for what it's done for him, so he's committed to growing here in Fargo." The company has options on additional land at its main site for future expansion beyond the current project.
Aldevron's COO came to Fargo from the hot spot of Austin, Texas. Brown himself came to Aldevron from Washington, D.C., three years ago, admittedly with trepidation.
"It's a wonderful, welcoming community" he says. "My daughter just finished her first year at the University of North Dakota [UND] in Grand Forks. It's been a great place to land — low cost of living, low crime. My church, work and gym are all within three miles of my house."
"It sounds trite, but there's more time for life here," says his colleague Ellen Shafer, Aldevron's new director of marketing and communications. A native whose great-grandparents emigrated to North Dakota from Norway, Shafer says, "I'm one of the ones who moved back," after living in Minneapolis for several years.
Brown is an avid road bicyclist, and was preparing himself for a letdown after being part of the huge Potomac Pedalers group in D.C.
"Then I found Great Northern Bikes, which has rides three days a week, and the ride on Tuesday is always over 50 people," he says. "I was shocked when I rolled into that. Some of the things I was thinking I was going to miss? They're here."
What else is here? Five higher education institutions in the Greater Fargo-Moorhead area, with UND just an hour to the north. Fargo, says Brown, "has a college town feel to it in a lot of ways," in part because of Minnesota State University Moorhead, serving nearly 6,000 students from its campus just across the Red River; and Concordia College (2,000-plus). Altogether, the area is home to nearly 30,000 college students.
"We're starting to attract people from around the world," says Brown. "We can't just stroll across the street and grab someone like in Boston," he say. But as people can do more remotely, you don't have to be in coastal hubs to be successful, he says. One price you pay is a North Dakota winter. But there's another price to pay too: $30 a square foot instead of $150.
Unimpeded Space for Innovation
At Grand Forks Air Force Base, Grand Sky — the nation's first commercial unmanned aerial systems (UAS) business and aviation park — provides tenants with testing amenities that include authorization for large UAS BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) flights in partnership with the Northern Plains UAS Test Site. Aerospace giants Northrop Grumman and General Atomics have established major presences. But the park is just as open to smaller firms (already over 20) exploring opportunities in this nascent field.
Insitu Inc., the Boeing UAV subsidiar, in May signed agreements with UND that will bring more Insitu software into UND's famous Aviation Education and Research program. UND, which uses Insitu's ScanEagle UAS, also will add Insitu's new ScanEagle3 UAS to its fleet.
Mark Bauman, vice president, Insitu Commercial, says the partnership with UND "transcends the educational domain" and opens up into further opportunities for expansion of UAS in all of North Dakota, beginning with the growing need for remote aerial surveillance by oil and gas professionals working in the Bakken basin.
Combine strong state and congressional delegation support for UAS, the unique airspace with the energy, higher education and military presence in the region, he says, and "you have this center of gravity of UAS technology that is enabled by that ecosystem. It's a great environment to invest in."
Wes Shover, president of the North Dakota chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) and the UAS Sector Development Manager for the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp., says the strength of UAS in the area comes to more than 850 jobs, $57 million in annual wages and just over $310 million in annual economic impact, he says. That only figures to grow, given that the Northern Plains test site is widely regarded as the top site in the FAA's national portfolio.
Partnering for Prosperity
Steve Burian, CEO of engineering consulting firm AE2S, serves alongside Border States Electric CEO Tammy Miller as co-chair of the Valley Prosperity Partnership, whose Action Agenda 2014–2019 priorities include attracting, developing and retaining talent. He sees UND and NDSU as "the jewels of the region. As they go, the region goes. We're probably as well positioned for them to have an impact as we've ever been, given the way the stars are aligning."
Burian himself got his start in business because of the strong research alignment of his alma mater UND. And firms continue to emanate from both campuses. The region's entrepreneurial scene — labeled Emerging Prairie, among other names — can be glimpsed every week at 1 Million Cups Fargo. In Grand Forks, city leaders devoted a portion of economic development dollars to the Startup Grand Forks fund. Coworking spaces are popping up too, from Emerging Prairie's Prairie Den in Fargo to a space called The 701 backed by Evolve Grand Forks.
"We realize the necessity of being a cool community, in terms of attracting and keeping people," Burian says. "Some of those softer elements are indeed critical to primary sector success."
Indeed, those intangibles keep popping up.
"One is work ethic," Burian says. "Nobody can put their finger on whether we're still close enough to the farm that there's that sunup-to-sundown mentality. But you'll hear employers talk about reliability, timeliness and productivity."
The area also still benefits from "North Dakota nice." People probably lock their doors these days, and may not leave their pickup trucks running in the winter while they duck into the store, "but it's still a bit closer to Mayberry than other places in the country," says Burian. "For a place to raise your kids and feel good about it, it's a neat environment."
His 20-year-old daughter is attending NDSU, and he has an 18-year-old son starting at UND in the fall. "We're a mixed family," he says. Both of the Burian children are going into engineering. And both saw the Valley as a positive place to continue their educations. Burian admits he might have "somewhat intentionally" exposed them to those local opportunities as they grew up.
"So they'd see North Dakota," he says, "for the jewel that it is."