By Erik Burgess / The Forum
MOORHEAD — The bright yellow billboard ad outside Moorhead claiming North Dakota’s superiority in the business realm is gone.
But while the advertisement has skedaddled, the fact remains that on the overall, North Dakota border counties crushed their counterparts in Minnesota in job growth over the last decade.
Cass County saw a nearly 28 percent increase in total jobs from the end of 2002 to the end of 2012, according to the North Dakota Labor Market Information Center.
Jobs in neighboring Clay County grew by a more modest 7 percent in the same span, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
In the last year, Cass County ranked 25th in job growth out of the nation’s 328 largest counties, according to a U.S. Department of Labor report released Thursday. The county’s total jobs grew 3.6 percent from December 2011 to December 2012.
Among the border counties in North Dakota and Minnesota, Clay County had the fourth most employment growth in the last 10 years, but it doesn’t compare to the swelling employment in Cass County, which ranked number one along the border.
“I think we’re starting to see through these types of numbers what state policy does to us right along the border,” said Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland. “I think it also shows the strengthening of North Dakota economy with the oil. It’s just a little more desirable I think.”
‘I’m just glad it’s gone’
In Moorhead, the “tale of two cities” narrative on job growth can be a sensitive issue. The reaction the now-displaced billboard received when it first went up was evidence of that. The sign along Interstate 94 in Moorhead had a bold message: “North Dakota: Open for Business.”
The sign was a part of a Greater North Dakota Chamber campaign touting the business growth and development potential of North Dakota.
The “in-your-face” messaging angered officials on both sides of the river, Moorhead Councilman Mark Hintermeyer said.
Hintermeyer and Craig Whitney, president and CEO of the Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo Chamber, both wanted the ad torn down immediately after it went up on May 16, and eventually, they got their wish.
The ad left Moorhead on June 1, about two weeks after going up. It has since moved down I-94, placed near Fergus Falls, Minn.
“Perhaps I had something to do with it – perhaps not,” Hintermeyer said.“I’m just glad it’s gone.”
The Greater North Dakota Chamber said moving the ad from Moorhead was planned and had nothing to do with its sour reception here.
Jon Godfread, vice president for government affairs at the statewide chamber, said the backlash the sign received actually helped attract media attention, making the investment “that much better,” he said.
But in a May 30 news release, the North Dakota Chamber said it would be spreading its message farther into Minnesota “through the placement of a second billboard” near Fergus Falls, not by moving the first ad. It also stated that “additional billboards are planned in Minnesota” during the summer.
As of Monday, the Fergus Falls ad remains the only billboard the state chamber has at this time, said Carissa Richter, vice president of communications for the state chamber.
Godfread said the suggestion in the release that the campaign would involve multiple billboards could have been “poor wording” and reiterated that the sign was moved as planned.
“We’re not going to apologize for North Dakota doing well,” he said.
N.D. growth ‘exceptional’
And North Dakota is doing very well.
The total number of jobs in the state as a whole grew nearly 34 percent in the last decade, from December 2002 to December 2012, an increase of 106,240 jobs, according to the North Dakota Labor Market Information Center.
Meanwhile, Minnesota added 74,002 jobs statewide from the fourth quarter of 2002 through the fourth quarter of 2012, representing only about 3 percent growth, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Cass County in that 10-year span added 23,633 total jobs, while Clay County added 1,227.
It’s been the same story up and down the Red River. In the last decade, all North Dakota counties along the Minnesota border have gone from 141,698 jobs to 170,097 jobs, a 20 percent increase. Minnesota counties bordering North Dakota went from 37,628 jobs in 2002 to 38,728 jobs in 2012, a 3 percent increase.
Many credit North Dakota’s tax climate with driving better job growth along the border, including Godfread, who said Minnesota hurt itself this year by increasing the income tax rate on top earners, “which are often your small business owners.”
“That’s the route they’re taking to increase revenue,” Godfread said.
Despite the numbers, Jeff Frider, a Moorhead Business Association member who serves on the city’s Economic Development Authority, said he doesn’t want to have an “us vs. them” attitude.
“We’re seeing some growth as well, but it certainly doesn’t compare with 20-some percent,” Frider said. “I mean, that’s extremely exceptional.”
Job growth has been a big enough focus in Moorhead to spur the city to hire a full-time business development and retention services manager, a new post Matt Maslowski has been in for three months.
He’s charged with attracting new businesses to Moorhead as well as keeping those already there and encouraging their further growth, a service which Voxland said was perhaps lacking in the past.
The mayor said he has heard that developers from out of the region aren’t even looking at Moorhead when they come to the metro area. Even local businesses wanting to open a new site or expand are told not to consider Moorhead, Voxland said.
“They’re just told by their Realtor, or whoever they’re working with, ‘Well don’t bother going to Minnesota because you know how bad that is over there,’” Voxland said. “Well, they don’t say any more than that. They don’t have the facts in front of them.”
“That’s why we hired Matt, … to get that focus back to make sure that Moorhead and Clay County do get looks,” he said.
Maslowski, a Bismarck native who worked at U.S. Bank and Bremer Bank in Minneapolis before moving here, sees some positives.
“Moorhead is strong. We’ve grown a lot over the last decade,” he said. “People want to make Moorhead their home. Yes, you have Fargo next door, but that doesn’t mean you focus on that.”
Whitney said he also believes Moorhead is starting to see “good growth,” and pointed to the incoming Sam’s Club on the city’s south side.
“But, you know, obviously some of the things that the Minnesota Legislature did are not very helpful for business,” he said, referring to the new cigarette tax that went into place on Monday as another example.
Sixty percent of employed people who live in Clay County commute to jobs in Fargo or West Fargo, Whitney said, which he attributed to Fargo and West Fargo just being a bigger community.
“There are more jobs obviously in Fargo and West Fargo. There just are,” he said.
Whitney said with a wide-open mayoral race this fall in Moorhead, with Voxland not running for re-election, he hopes city leaders can push Moorhead legislators to better address the development disparity.
“It’s not just Moorhead or Fargo. All border city communities can have difficult times based on what the two legislatures are doing with the states,” he said.
Voxland said Moorhead’s selling points include electric rates, water quality and land availability along I-94.
It’s now about better communicating the positives to the business community, Maslowski said.
“I think this side has a lot of incentives and a lot of community to be offered,” Maslowski said.