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From left, Jocelyn Martinez, Angel Benavides, his mother, Aracely, and brother Juan talk Tuesday outside of the Manvel (N.D.) Public School, where they participate in a seven-week course that helps immigrants with agricultural backgrounds get up to speed on any class credits they need. The course is aimed at helping students from surrounding small towns. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)

Study eyes housing trends, opportunities for small towns outside Grand Forks

ARVILLA, N.D.—Economic leaders hope a countywide study highlighting housing and workforce trends in Grand Forks County will help communities see opportunities for growth.

Community representatives gathered Tuesday at the Woodland Lodge in Turtle River State Park for the unveiling of a study dubbed "Housing Opportunity in Grand Forks County." The study focuses on nine cities in Grand Forks County: Manvel, Gilby, Niagara, Emerado, Larimore, Northwood, Thompson, Reynolds and Inkster.

The event hosted by the Grand Forks Housing Authority and Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. featured speakers highlighting the findings of the study and ways communities can grow economically. The idea of tracking housing in rural communities came as EDC Development and Outreach Manager Brandon Baumbach began reaching out to community leaders after he joined the EDC last year.

"One thing that came up often was housing as an opportunity," he said.

Housing prices in the Grand Forks metropolitan area grew by almost 38 percent in the last five years compared with 8.3 percent from 2007 to 2012, according to the report. The median sale price for a home in the metro area for the 12 months ending in March was $226,000.

"Construction of single-family homes has remained fairly stagnant in recent years while multi-family housing boomed," the report said.

There also has been a 17.8 percent job growth rate for the Grand Forks area since 2003. With a 4.6 percent population growth over the last six years, the Grand Forks metro area is beating out two-thirds of the country's 382 metropolitan areas in population growth.

In January, the state of North Dakota released a housing study highlighting issues by county, but Baumbach said he and others wanted to take a closer look at cities in the region.

"It doesn't give you a lot of detail for Gilby when you are in the same county as Grand Forks," Baumbach said of North Dakota's study.

The Grand Forks County study that began in the spring touches on a number of topics: growth of industry sectors, impact of taxes on residents and growth scenarios as well as economic impact from the proposed Northern Plains Nitrogen Plant and the Grand Sky tech park.

But another section looks at the future of housing demand in the county based on residents' willingness to commute. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 14,221 workers commuted to greater Grand Forks for jobs in 2014. Northwood retains 26 percent of its workers for jobs in its city, Larimore retains 11 percent and the other cities retain no more than 2.5 percent, according to the report.

"This suggests that Grand Forks County and the greater region are one regional economy and each city within the county is a node in that region," the report said.

The narrative that people are leaving rural America in large numbers is false, said Benjamin Winchester, a senior research fellow with the University of Minnesota Extension. He said 95 percent of rural Americans do not work in agricultural jobs and residents ages 30 to 49 years old find rural areas attractive because of safety, a "simpler life" and affordable housing.

Rural communities should try to understand what age groups, especially ones who find rural areas desirable, want in a community, he said.

"New residents are more than warm bodies," he said, adding communities need to be more specific in engaging and attracting residents.