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‘Sometimes experiments fail’: The Grand Forks grant project that wasn’t

An up-and-coming Somali chef might have cooked in the kitchen, sold his food and gained the skills he needed to get on his feet. The project was imagined as a student-driven venture, drawing young trainers from local colleges and other schools to advise the chef on the ins and outs of the American business scene. Customers from around the city might have walked through, weighed a purchase from any number of bright-eyed entrepreneurs, and headed home happy.

In time, that same chef might have struck out on his own and founded his own restaurant, graduating from the mall into the wider Grand Forks community of entrepreneurs.

But that vision never came to be.

Instead, the project unfolded in a series of steadily mounting failures, all falling like dominoes against its success. Its history offers a look behind a curtain typically kept drawn across failed ventures, but also suggests a world that might have been—one with a thriving business at the Grand Cities Mall’s north end.

Launched in 2015 by UND entrepreneurship instructor La Royce Batchelor, the project started with $70,000 in grant funding, but disintegrated over the course of 2016. First, it ran across asbestos in its space at the mall, holding up the project and jeopardizing relationships with donors. Then it failed to receive a key federal grant, immobilizing the project—a critical blow that left it without a future. By September, the project received a letter from the Community Foundation, led by since-resigned director Kristi Mishler, freezing its remaining funding.

Mishler called the move unprecedented in her nearly decade-long tenure.

Nearly every major player on the project tells a slightly different story—each placing blame somewhere else.

“There are no easy answers to this,” Batchelor said in an interview. “It’s all interconnected mess.”

By the end of the project, there was no market. The lion’s share of $70,000 had been spent paying for labor, asbestos removal and rent, but the project appears to have…

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