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Feds nix rule change that would have downgraded 'metro' areas

So, for now, Grand Forks gets to stay in the same “metro” category as bigger cities, like Fargo, Sioux Falls, Boise and even Los Angeles and New York — giving them a little extra prestige, and more importantly, the same kind of access to federal funding.

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Sen. Kevin Cramer, left, and Sen. John Hoeven. (Forum News Service file photos)
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GRAND FORKS — Federal leaders have decided that Grand Forks gets to stay in the big leagues.

The federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said this week that a key threshold for a “metropolitan statistical area” (MSA) will remain at 50,000 people.

That’s hugely important for places such as Grand Forks, which has fewer than 60,000 residents; the proposed new level of 100,000 would have left the city behind, likely demoting it to “micropolitan” status.

So, for now, Grand Forks gets to stay in the same “metro” category as bigger cities such as Fargo, Sioux Falls, Boise and even Los Angeles and New York — giving them a little extra prestige, and more importantly, the same kind of access to federal funding.

“It allows us to get that federal money for infrastructure and (community-building) types of funds,” Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski said. “If you want to call it a win for federal-local partnerships, it's a good day for that. At least, for our size."

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In theory, this is all just a matter of weights and measures. The Grand Forks MSA, for example, includes Grand Forks and Polk counties. That puts East Grand Forks, Thompson, Larimore and others in the same broad unit as Grand Forks, which is considered the metro area’s urban core. That urban core population, University of North Dakota economist David Flynn said in March, is the key measure for whether or not an area qualifies as a “metro” zone.

But in practice, Grand Forks leaders say, the “metro” designator is part of what helps guide millions in federal funding directly to the local community. If Grand Forks had lost its status, it might have gotten caught up in eroding attention and funding levels from Washington — fighting for smaller amounts of money alongside smaller communities.

That’s made the recent decision cause for celebration all across the country. Scores of communities had been at risk, including Bismarck and Mankato, Minn. Others, such as Minot, had been on the cusp of graduating to “metro” status for years. That would have been yanked far out of reach with a higher population threshold.

All the members of North Dakota’s congressional delegation earned praise from around North Dakota working on the issue. And Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in a statement this week that he was glad OMB had decided against the change, calling it a “misguided proposal” and “short-sighted.”

“We appreciate OMB heeding our call to abandon the change, which would have directly affected the federal funding that these communities receive for infrastructure, health care, housing and other federal programs,” Hoeven said.

Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., echoed that relief.

“I appreciate OMB’s Acting Director Shalanda Young for being attentive as my colleagues and I voiced our concerns about this issue, and I am grateful she made the right call,” he said.

The proposed change got a hearing, though, because the current MSA system is old. It’s so old, in fact, that roughly 86% of the country now lives in a “metro area,” leaving the term mostly useless as a way to refer to especially large population centers. Kevin Iverson, a demographer with the state’s commerce department, pointed out in March that the U.S. population has doubled since the creation of the MSA designator in 1950.

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And since then, the country has not only grown, but has begun to organize itself far differently, with more concentration in big urban centers and far less in rural zones. That’s why federal leaders have started to think hiking the requirement for urban core population — from 50,000 to 100,000 — might help modernize things.

Despite the success this week, though, those long-term, shifting patterns in the way Americans live are still a big issue that leaders will have to confront. In Grand Forks, the conversation about how to grow the local workforce has been front-of-mind for years.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., praised the decision to keep the standards the same in an interview. But she’s well aware there’s lots of work to do to bolster communities outside the largest American metros.

“We don’t have enough housing or child care in rural areas,” Klobuchar said of many areas. “We have deserts, and you can’t recruit new employees to work at small or big companies if you don’t have the places for them to live, or child care for their kids to go to or the broadband.”

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Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., plans to introduce legislation to boost infrastructure for biofuels, among other efforts to improve the market for the alternative fuels. Jonathan Ernst / Getty Images / TNS

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