Lonnie Laffen, one of the founders of JLG Architects, has been posthumously honored with the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corporation’s 2021 Klaus Thiessen Impact Award.
Held in person at the Alerus Center once again after having a virtual award ceremony in 2020, about 275 attendees, including representatives of the EDC, local elected officials and business leaders, gathered on Wednesday, June 9, to see Laffen honored with the award. Laffen, a businessman and former state lawmaker, died of a heart attack late last year.
Accepting the award on Laffen’s behalf were his wife Pam, and JLG Project Manager Adam Davidson.
“In representing the Laffen family, Lonnie’s wife, Pam, and the entire JLG family, I am deeply honored and humbled today to accept on Lonnie’s behalf, the Klaus Thiessen Impact Award in recognizing Lonnie’s significant contributions to the economic development of the Grand Forks region,” said Davidson.
Presenting that award, and welcoming Davidson and Pam Laffen to the stage, was Jonathan Holth, a local restaurateur and Community and Client Development Manager at JLG Architects. Holth said Laffen helped him secure space for his restaurant, The Toasted Frog, in a downtown building that Laffen owned.
“That changed my life,” Holth said. “That was Lonnie. He believed in the best in people. He believed in challenging people and taking risks, understanding that tripping, falling and sometimes failing was a part of life and a part of business, but that shouldn’t ever stop us from striving toward success.”
The Impact Award is bestowed each year at the EDC’s annual meeting. It recognizes businesses and individuals who make a positive impact on economic growth and prosperity in the Grand Forks region. Laffen founded JLG Architects in 1989 with Gary Johnson. Jim Galloway, another partner, later joined the firm.
Laffen served in the state Senate from 2010 to 2018, and sat on numerous state and local boards, including the Community Leadership Committee for the Grand Forks Region EDC and the North Dakota Historic Preservation Review Board. He also worked to plan downtown Grand Forks after the flood of 1997.
Following the award portion of the meeting, Keith Lund, president and CEO of the EDC, introduced the theme of this year’s annual meeting as “Resilient and Rising.” The Grand Forks region, Lund said, is resilient in that is has continued to grow despite despite numerous setbacks over the years, beginning with the missile closure at Grand Forks Air Force Base, then continuing with the Flood of ‘97, a recession in 2009 and culminating with the coronavirus pandemic.
Throughout those challenges, Lund said businesses in multiple sectors have continued to add jobs, and that the region has nearly returned to pre-pandemic unemployment levels, down from a high of 9% when the coronavirus plagued the state and caused an unprecedented shift in how companies do business. Among others, Lund said an example of that shift was the Red Pine Distillery pivoting from making vodka to hand sanitizer.
Noting the second part of the meeting’s theme, Lund said the region is rising due to gains in the agribusiness, manufacturing and unmanned aerial systems sectors, the latter of which employs nearly 1,200 people at 23 companies.
Lund thanked members of the Grand Forks County Commission for pursuing a lease for land from Grand Forks Air Force Base for the development of the Grand Sky drone business park, where flagship companies like Northrop Grumman and General Atomics are located.
“From my standpoint, I think Grand Sky is the most strategic economic development investment in our generation, so thank you for your leadership,” Lund said.
Lund lauded the region’s burgeoning technology sector, including Mayor Brandon Bochenski’s push to transform the downtown Herald building into a tech accelerator to foster startup companies. At the same time, UND, he said, is working to reshape its computer science department to emphasize big data, cyber security and scientific computing. Lund congratulated Bochenski and UND President Andrew Armacost on their first year in their positions.
While a part of Grand Forks’ future is tech, another part is workforce development, which Lund called the EDC’s “current endeavor.” Lund said the EDC is partnering with Grand Forks Public Schools, UND, Northland Community and Technical College and others to bring a workforce development center to Grand Forks. The center, still in the conceptual stage, would work to align K-12 education, post-secondary education and industry, to identify clear pathways for high-paying careers available in the region. The center could be financed in part by a $70 million fund created by the Legislature to help pay for new centers around the state.
“Make no mistake, this is a workforce retention effort, which you all know is sorely needed,” Lund said.
Also speaking at the event was Brianne Osowski, a boutique owner and CEO of Tailorie, a new start-up company based in Grand Forks.