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Wendy Reuer, Published February 21 2014

Valley City's economic development efforts focus on 'quality of life'

VALLEY CITY, N.D. – Leaders here have had steady success attracting industry over the years, but now they’re aiming for businesses that improve the quality of life for a population they hope starts growing after a decade of decline.

City staples like a movie theater, authentic ethnic dining options and arts venues have been at the top of residents’ wish list for years. Now they are becoming a reality, thanks in part to efforts sponsored by the Valley Development Group of Valley City and Barnes County.

The development corporation has partnered with the Bank of North Dakota to pool $1 million for housing and business developers interested in investing in the city.

The Flex PACE program allows developers to apply for low-interest loans, some with rates as little as 1 percent, to create housing and service or retail business in the Valley City area.

Movie theater reopens

For the past year, Valley City – like many other small cities across North Dakota – was trying to find a developer to invest in its sole movie theater after it was shut down by the previous owner due to the high cost of digital conversion.

To help promote the venture, the Valley Development Group offered investors an additional $50,000 grant.

Bismarck residents Jeremy and Wendy Zako, who also own theaters in Bismarck and Hazen, took the city up on the offer and re-opened the two-screen theater this winter.

“(A move theater) is really a critical business for quality of life,” said Jennifer Feist, director of development for the development corporation. “It’s an anchor business, a core business that people want in their city.”

More dining options

Besides a movie theater, residents named a Chinese buffet as one of their top demands, Feist said. They also wanted an authentic Mexican restaurant and other dining options.

The authentic Mexican cuisine was fulfilled when Mi Pueblito – also known by its former café name “Another Time” – opened along Main Avenue last year. Residents will soon get their Asian wish when the Kirin House opens by the end of the month or in March.

Zhi Chen, whose parents operate the Great Dragon restaurant in Jamestown, said customers would drive from Valley City to Jamestown to eat at his parents’ restaurant.

“I felt bad for them that they would have to drive all the way over there for (Chinese food),” Chen said.

So he decided to open his own restaurant in Valley City and is remodeling the former Pizza Hut building.

To do that, Chen secured a low-interest loan from the Barnes County Development Corp.’s Expanded Flex PACE Program.

Renovating the ‘Audi’

Another project that may soon use the Flex PACE program is a renovation of the city’s historic auditorium. The “Audi,” as it is known locally, is on the state’s historic registry and sits just off Main Avenue near the entrance to the city’s bridge park.

The City Commission sold the building in January to Brandon and Lindsey Culver, who plan to renovate it into an events center, a project Feist said she anticipates will use Flex money.

She said an events center fits into the parameters of the types of projects the program wants to see.

“They’re going to make a substantial investment in that building,” Feist said.

The Culvers have said they will release details of their plans at a later date.

The Valley City couple could not be reached for comment Friday.

Feist said the development corporation plans to divide the $1 million in Flex PACE funds, with half going for housing and business because multifamily housing will soon be needed in what leaders anticipate will be a growing city.

Housing a priority

Census figures from 2010 show that Valley City’s population shrank about 3.5 percent from 6,800 in 2000 to 6,585 in 2010.

But as more jobs are created and western North Dakota’s oil boom pushes growth east, housing will soon be tight with a growing Valley City population, Feist predicted.

A couple of developers have indicated an interest in building housing, but nothing is definite yet, she said.

Job creation has always been a priority for the Valley Development Group, Feist said.

Toward that end, it bought 76 acres of land for regional development on the northeast side of town. Of those, 30 acres were purchased by the John Deere Co., which built a $20 million, 115,000-square-foot addition to its existing plant at that location, adding 80 jobs.

A little more than 19 acres were purchased by the North Dakota National Guard for a 35,000-square-foot field maintenance center on a site that will eventually become a regional training ground.

The development group hopes to sell the remaining 20 acres in the near future.

One industry need the city hopes to fill is in technology. Feist said two companies are installing fiber optics in the city, including Steele-based BEK Communications, which secured a state grant to bring fiber optics to residential areas.

She said the city’s growth is slow and steady. While it may not be on the same pace as cities in western North Dakota’s Oil Patch, Feist said Valley City is on the right track.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530