FARGO, N.D. – Growing up here, Greg Tehven heard all the jokes.
“When I’d tell people I was from Fargo, I would get laughed at. It was almost as if other cities bullied us,” said Tehven, 29, a self-appointed community booster and co-founder of Emerging Prairie, a network of local entrepreneurs and start-ups.
It was bad enough when the movie “Fargo” came out two decades ago. Now it’s back as a TV show and this time, the gap between the Fargo on screen — the one with the woodchipper — and the city that surrounds him is galling.
Tehven’s Fargo is the five-block radius of downtown; a vibrant community of artists, tech entrepreneurs, college kids and possibilities. Once hollowed out, the downtown is now crowded with coffee shops, restaurants and quirky shops that draw in crowds of strolling pedestrians and cyclists.
Tehven’s Fargo is one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities.
Newcomers are pouring into the Fargo-Moorhead region, pushing its borders outward, filling the schools to capacity, but still not filling all its 5,700 current job vacancies. Neighboring West Fargo has built so many new schools, they hold contests to come up with names. Fargo itself, population 109,000, now sprawls across 48 square miles, a footprint the size of Boston.
“You feel like you died and went to heaven, ” said James Gartin, president of the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corp. — the man in charge of encouraging economic growth in a place now ranked as the best place in America to find a job, the country’s third-safest community and its fourth-fastest growing metro region.
“It’s electric,” Gartin said. “It’s just an incredible time to be in this market. Not only with the business growth, but we have this incredible entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
These are boom times for all of North Dakota, as western oil fields bring in money and jobs at a staggering rate. The unemployment rate is near 2 percent and there’s so much revenue rolling in, the Legislature has cut taxes by $2.4 billion since 2009, yet the state still has a $500 million surplus.
The Bakken oil fields are 400 miles northwest of here, and while the region benefits from the oil boom, most of its prosperity is coming from within. The largest employers in town are the health care companies, the region’s many universities, the banks and the tech companies, led by Microsoft. Beyond the five-block core of downtown, Fargo levels out into a sprawl of neighborhoods and businesses, with more going up every day; 2,700 new housing permits have been issued this year.
Plenty of towns talk about revitalizing their downtowns. Fargo is actually doing it, thanks to the happy combination of a good economy, a thriving business climate and motivated residents.
“We’re building the kind of city we want to live in,” Tehven said.
Man with a plan
The rebirth of Fargo started with one building, and one man determined to save it.
When Doug Burgum was starting his software company, he did what a lot of businesses do — turned his back on downtown Fargo and built a sprawling campus on the outskirts of town. He sold that company, Great Plains Software, to Microsoft more than a decade ago, leaving him with time and resources to invest in the neglected downtown.
He started with a dilapidated old school supply building that was about to be razed for a parking lot. In 2000, the city paid Burgum $100,000 to take it off its hands — half a million dollars less than it would have cost to demolish the thing and a fraction of what it was going to cost to restore the hulking structure with its leaky roof, asbestos insulation and tenant population of pigeons and rats.
Burgum refurbished the building and donated it to North Dakota State University. Today, it’s known as Renaissance Hall and houses the university’s architecture department. Other developers stepped forward to renovate other buildings and Burgum’s Kilbourne Group continues to work downtown, restoring what it can and building new where historic buildings have already been leveled.
“People ask, ‘What’s left to do?’ ” Burgum said. “I tell them we’re just getting started.”
The downtown does more than look good. A distinctive city center with amenities can make the difference in attracting new businesses and workers.
“Value what makes your community distinctive. Don’t try to look like everyone else,” said Thomas R. Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.
The two largest demographic groups in America today are the aging baby boomers and the millennials, born between the 1980s and 2000s. Both groups, Fisher said, are increasingly drawn to downtown living, often for the same reasons — they want the entertainment, shops and amenities you can walk to, unlike the sidewalk-free sprawl of the suburbs.
The other half
Across the Red River, Moorhead, in its low-key Minnesota way, is growing even faster than Fargo. “People are feeling really, really excited, ” said Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams. The city’s population jumped 18 percent in the last census, compared to Fargo’s 16 percent.
But it’s not always easy being the other half of a hyphenated metro area. Rather than focusing on downtown revitalization — a difficult proposition, since a large swath of downtown Moorhead was razed to make way for a mall — Moorhead cultivates the image of a politically progressive, family-friendly college town. It touts its schools, its close-knit neighborhoods, its public funding for the arts, its parks and green spaces — in short, its Minnesota-ness.
As much as the cities value their unique identities, what’s good for Fargo is good for Moorhead, and vice versa.
“People ask me sometimes why I don’t do something for Moorhead,” said Burgum, cuing up Web pages for Moorhead’s largest universities — Concordia and Minnesota State University, Moorhead. He pointed to images on both schools’ websites, featuring prominent images of downtown Fargo. “I tell them I am doing something for Moorhead.”
Small town, big ambitions
Fargo is a city of networkers. One person will notice that the downtown alleys could use some sprucing up, and in short order Alley Fair gets created, with volunteers fanning out over town to fill vacant alleys with art, plants and light. It can feel like the city has a downtown improvement flash mob.
“It’s a small town with big ambitions, ” said Mark Weiler, a Fargo native who owns Ecce Studios, a hybrid art gallery and yoga studio in the center of downtown.
Every month, Ecce hosts a midnight gathering that sums up Fargo at its best: Diners gather around a table decorated by a local artist, eat vegan food sourced from nearby farms, the seating carefully chosen to place the entrepreneur next to a financier, or a newcomer next to a native. The entertainment at the last midnight brunch was a violinist from the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony, who played while an international yo-yo champion performed.
So people keep coming, and Fargo-Moorhead keeps growing. “Fargo is filled with really talented, creative, hardworking people that care, ” Tehven said. “And we’re having the time of our lives.”
Jennifer Brooks • 612-673-4008