Main Street GF — challenge accepted

‘Main Street GF Challenge’ answers governor’s call to action by recruiting next-gen innovators, other schools watching

Collin Hanson

Collin Hanson, executive director for Evolve Grand Forks and a 2016 UND graduate, worked with a network of public and private partners to create the Main Street GF Challenge. The aim of the project is to empower younger community members to act on the visions they have for the Grand Forks community. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

When North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum visited the 701 Coworking space in downtown Grand Forks last January, he had two questions for the young people in attendance:

What do you do for fun? Why don’t you enjoy the opportunities that exist?

Collin Hanson, executive director of Evolve Grand Forks and one of those young people, began to realize those weren’t the right questions for Grand Forks.

“Rather than ‘what do you do for fun,’ how can we encourage you to do what you want to do,” Hanson said. “Instead of, ‘why don’t you take advantage of existing opportunities,’ how do we empower you to create the community that you want to live and work in?”

His answer, through a unique partnership with UND, is the Main Street GF Challenge. Developed through a web of public and private partners, the challenge addresses the tenants of Burgum’s Main Street Initiative: healthy, vibrant communities; smart, efficient infrastructure; and a 21st-century workforce.

Hanson sees the project as a way to engage younger demographics in civic service. The challenge calls upon high school and college-aged students to pitch innovative ideas that will build a future-ready Grand Forks. Hanson says he’s been receiving a steady amount of applications for what amounts to $50,000 in total prizes.

And word of what’s going on in Grand Forks is starting to spread to other college towns. Community innovators in Spokane, Wash., home to Gonzaga University, are very interested in how Grand Forks is empowering young people to make a difference.

Main Street GF Challenge

The Main Street GF Challenge addresses the tenants of ND Governor Burgum’s Main Street Initiative: healthy, vibrant communities; smart, efficient infrastructure; and a 21st century workforce. Hanson says the governor’s office has been impressed with Grand Forks’ personal-level commitment to tackling the issues facing North Dakota communities. Image courtesy of Evolve Grand Forks.

The challenge

For each category, three winners will be selected – two UND students and one Grand Forks high school student. UND winners receive a $5,000 cash prize to develop their projects. High school students will receive $3,000 in cash, but also a $2,000 scholarship to UND, courtesy of the UND Alumni Association & Foundation.

Plus, all nine winners receive a six-month membership to Evolve GF’s 701 Coworking space on South Third Street; a civic adviser with expertise in their project’s area; and free attendance to the challenge’s launch-day event.

Winners of the challenge will be announced May 24, and project work is expected to start at the beginning of June.

“Growing up, I had always been civic-minded,” Hanson said. “It was natural for me to reach out to organizations that I wanted to work with. If you don’t come from that background, it can feel tough to feel a connection to the community.”

By incentivizing students to develop projects outside of an academic setting, Hanson hopes he’ll be connecting young innovators with people who can help make their ideas happen. Establishing student-mentor relationships is a substantial element of the experience.

“We asked ‘what are the main issues when a student has an idea that’s community-focused,’” he explained. “The first was capital – having funding to do what you need to do when you have few resources. The other was the relationships necessary to carry out different ideas. We’re focused on bringing civic advisers and mentors together so students have a built-in network they can reach out to.”

The Main Street GF Challenge winners will have up to six months to implement their projects. Students will then write a report on their experience. As it’s written on the contest website, the hope is that the projects are only the beginning of bigger ideas that grow beyond the constraints of six months.

“What’s nice about the Main Street Initiative is that it provides a good framework for these ideas,” Hanson said. “We realize that there won’t be 10 projects that all address one issue and that gets us to a ‘healthy, vibrant community.’ This is something that will take years to reach the full potential, so I think we understand our framework as just that. We don’t expect within one year to say our projects attained everything we wanted.”

That isn’t to say they’re looking for “safe” projects either. Hanson wants the amount of capital and time provided to students to inspire nontraditional thinking.

“We know $5,000 is a good chunk of change, but it’s limiting if you’re thinking of infrastructure in a traditional sense,” he said. “We hope that in helping these students who have innovative ideas and new ways of engaging the community establish relationships, that these relationships are going to pay off well into the future.”

Collin Hanson

The Main Street GF Challenge addresses the tenants of ND Governor Burgum’s Main Street Initiative: healthy, vibrant communities; smart, efficient infrastructure; and a 21st century workforce. Hanson says the governor’s office has been impressed with Grand Forks’ personal-level commitment to tackling the issues facing North Dakota communities. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Essential institution

The Main Street GF Challenge does much to compliment UND’s own efforts through its Strategic Plan. Not only does it provide high-impact opportunities for up to six UND students, it enhances the already-blooming partnership between the City of Grand Forks and University.

“What better way for UND to fulfill its purpose to be the chief opportunity engine for our state and students than to provide experiential learning opportunities that enhance the quality of life for our state and region,” UND President Mark Kennedy said.

The City and UND have already submitted a joint grant to the North Dakota Department of Transportation to receive funding for work on University Avenue. As part of the Coulee to Columbia initiative, enhancing University Avenue’s appearance and functionality will help link the town-and-gown with a unifying Main Street. UND has also partnered with the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corporation through InternGF, a program that will provide student internships in new industries.

Hanson, a 2016 graduate of UND, understands the value of the University’s presence when it comes to improving the Grand Forks community.

“If policy makers and leaders aren’t viewing UND for the incredible asset that it is in the community, as truly a place where you can find world-class talent, Grand Forks will lose in the short and long term,” he said. “We want to encourage students to create the community in which they want to live and work. UND students don’t have to go to Minneapolis or another metro for their next opportunity or to have certain cultural experiences.”

Just the beginning

Now that they’re almost done accepting applications for its initial run — the closing day for applications is May 11 — Hanson wants this year’s results to blossom into future iterations of the challenge.

“There’s absolutely an intention to carry this program forward,” he said. “Eventually we would love to see this include Greater Grand Forks, so we could bring on additional schools. We consider this a pilot program, but a large one. We’re going to be learning a lot along the way and improving the process.”

Hanson wants to see proposals that not only address downtown Grand Forks, but the entire city. In a call with Burgum’s office, he and other city leaders received confirmation that they were on the right track in tackling the governor’s initiative.

“They said Grand Forks has taken it as a personal objective to bring action to these items,” Hanson said. “Not just saying we support the initiative, but that we have invested significant capital, time and resources in making strides toward a community that will thrive long-term.”

“The Main Street GF Challenge is a prime example of the Main Street Initiative’s grassroots effort to enhance every community in North Dakota,” Burgum said. “This challenge gives Grand Forks students the opportunity to take their dreams for the community and turn them into reality. In addition, this partnership between the public, private and nonprofit sectors underscores how collaboration is key to creating and maintaining healthy, vibrant communities across North Dakota.”