If Governor Doug Burgum Wants His Main Street Initiative Taken Seriously This Is What He Should Focus On


The setting sun baths downtown Fargo in a golden glow in ealrly August. Doug Burgum is taking his interest in downtown revitalization on the gubernatorial campaign trail with a newly announced pitch he calls his Main Street Initiative. David Samson / The Forum

Governor Doug Burgum has a column today in the Fargo Forum touting his vision for North Dakota’s downtown areas.

I think he needs to realize that, at first blush, a lot of North Dakotans are going to be turned off by this push.

For one thing a lot of citizens – most? – don’t do business downtown.

Most businesses aren’t located downtown.

Worse, be it fair or not, a lot of people here talk of promoting downtown development and immediately think of economic cronyism. Of inventive programs, paid for by the taxpayers, handed out by politicians to well-connected business people. Incentives often justified by economic development theories of dubious provenance.

If Burgum wants to build popular support for what he calls his “Main Street Initiative” he’s going to need to avoid looking like he’s pushing for more handouts and special favors for the well-connected community elites.

That’s why he should focus on the policies related to these ideas he mentioned in his column:

The traditional pattern of automobile-focused (versus people-focused) outward growth is creating financial stress for many of our cities. We all desire lower property taxes. One of the drivers of property taxes is a city’s footprint. The larger the footprint, the more linear feet of streets, roads, sewer, water and sidewalks there are to pay for and maintain, and the larger the financial burden on taxpayers. The high cost of sprawl is further amplified by the need for additional water towers, fire stations, police stations, longer garbage collection routes, and an increase in dedicated public employees to serve citizens.

Cities have accumulated substantial debt subsidizing growth on the edge, driven by an assumption that automobile traffic growth is never ending. But new technologies and new consumer offerings such as ridesharing are already changing transportation patterns.

The best return on investment for taxpayers is when private capital is invested where we have existing infrastructure, as opposed to constructing new buildings in “greenfield” areas that lack the tax base to fully pay for the public investments.

I’ve heard Governor Burgum make this argument many times before, and it’s a compelling one. He points out that every square mile of new, “greenfield” development adds miles of roads which need to be plowed and maintained. Square miles of business and residential areas which need police and fire protection, not to mention schools and other government services.

In arguing for denser development which relies on existing schools and fire departments and roads Burgum is, in effect, making an argument for a more frugal and efficient sort of government.

That will resonate with voters.

North Dakotans are generally pretty skeptical of economic development incentives, but they like the idea of keeping local budgets small and local taxes low.

If Burgum can convince the citizens of our state that denser development is a way to achieve the latter goal, he’ll win. But if Main Street Initiative is perceived as more handouts for downtown areas he’s going to have trouble getting it off the ground.