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Dave Kolpack, Associated Press, Published May 17 2013

Chamber president, Moorhead councilman take issue with pro-ND billboard

FARGO - North Dakota is promoting its business climate at Minnesota’s expense, and some politicians east of the Red River are not happy about it.

The Greater North Dakota Chamber has started a campaign that mocks proposals in the Minnesota Legislature, including bills that would raise certain taxes. A chamber release said Minnesota politicians are “making a strong case for business to come across the border to North Dakota.”

The first billboard went up Thursday along Interstate 94 in Moorhead. It reads “North Dakota” on the top line and “Open for Business” on the bottom.

Moorhead City Council member Mark Hintermeyer said Friday he considers the message unproductive and confrontational, and wants the sign taken down immediately. He said it could make local and state officials less interested in backing a proposed Red River diversion project that would move water around Fargo-Moorhead in times of serious flooding.

“It’s very unfortunate that the city of Fargo, which needs our cooperation for a diversion project, would want to poke us in the eye,” Hintermeyer said. “I have had a conversation with two other council members, and they are just as upset as I am.”

North Dakota Chamber President Andy Peterson said in an interview that in addition to promoting the state’s booming economy, one of the campaign’s objectives is to help Minnesota improve its business environment. He noted that a competitive states’ index lists North Dakota 15th for a favorable business climate and Minnesota is 40th.

“That doesn’t play well for our regional economy,” Peterson said. “We’re hoping that Minnesotans take notice that the government in Minnesota is taking more of their money and they will probably have less to spend.”

Hintermeyer is not buying that approach.

“There are policy considerations at the state level in St. Paul. This is not the way to get that message across,” Hintermeyer said. “I don’t see how this advances any goal here. I don’t know why they would want to pick a fight.”

Craig Whitney, president and CEO of a combined chamber of commerce for Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead, also called for the billboard to be removed and said his group wants to distance itself from the North Dakota effort.

“We find this appalling,” Whitney said Friday. “I pointed out to Andy (Peterson) the trouble that this is causing for frankly any of the border chambers. This is not the way to do business.”

Whitney said he doesn’t agree with many of the tax and policy proposals from Minnesota lawmakers, which he believes are not attractive to business. But the North Dakota chamber should take a different approach, he said.

Peterson said he has no plans to stop the campaign.

“As much as the Fargo and Moorhead people think this is about them, it is not about them. It has nothing to do with them,” Peterson said. “It’s about what’s happening in Minnesota that continues to suck the air out of the room.”

A member of Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s staff would not comment specifically on the North Dakota campaign, but said a chamber release jumped the gun on some Minnesota tax proposals.

“There are no gas or alcohol tax increases in our final tax bill, nor were they ever a part of the governor’s tax proposal,” Dayton spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci said in an email. “The budget we expect the legislature to pass and the governor to sign in the next several days makes significant investments in education and job creation that we know will help Minnesota businesses grow, and the economy to continue to grow.”

North Dakota has been bolstered in recent years by an oil boom that shows no signs of slowing down. A recent North Dakota State University study found that the economic impact of the state’s oil industry has increased nearly sevenfold between 2005 and 2011, from $4.4 billion to $30.4 billion.

Charley Johnson, president and CEO of the combined Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said his group tries to promote both states and doesn’t take a stand on which state is better for business. However, he said he understands why North Dakota would want to tout its prosperity.

“I’m a Moorhead resident and I’m not offended by it,” Johnson said. “I recognize it as the kind of back and forth that happens between states and other entities as they try to bolster their own economies.”