Moorhead has long had a chip on its shoulder. With an ambitious rethinking of its struggling downtown, this western Minnesota city in the Red River Valley is trying to do something about it.
Moorhead often feels overshadowed by its big-brother city, Fargo, across the river and with three times the population. A big part of the city's inferiority complex is a downtown that's on life support, especially compared with Fargo's bustling, walkable downtown.
But Moorhead is soon to embark on an exceedingly rare project: taking a metaphorical stick of dynamite to an established downtown and starting over.
What is now a struggling 1970s-era mall will soon become a $300 million-plus re-envisioning. A library and community center — supported by a half-cent sales tax overwhelmingly approved by voters — will serve as anchors, with 155,000 square feet of civic space. Private developers plan to bring more than 1,000 housing units, more than 100 dining and retail spaces, 50,000 square feet of entertainment space and more than 2,000 parking stalls in garages and surface lots.
"Many places have this historic fabric to their downtown, and it's been depleted, gone to ruins, and you're always forced to maintain that historic fabric," said Jim Roers, president of Roers, a Fargo-based company that will be the project's master developer. "Guess what? Moorhead did away with that in the 1970s. As a result, we get the opportunity to have a clean slate. We can level everything, and then there's raw dirt in a prime location on the river in an established downtown."
In the 1970s, the city interrupted its downtown street grid and existing businesses to build Moorhead Center Mall, a classic example of that era's urban renewal projects that devastated established American downtowns.
Anchor tenant Herberger's department store closed in 2018. Now, only five mall tenants remain. On the nearly 2 miles of Center Avenue between the river and 20th Street, there's only one building with housing.
City backers point out that while there's no center of gravity in downtown Moorhead, there is a vibrant ecosystem of thriving businesses within a 5-minute walk: a grocery store, a hardware store, a Scheels, a chiropractor, a theater. What's missing is the people.
"We have those foundational pieces," said Derrick LaPoint, president and CEO of Downtown Moorhead Inc. "But downtowns that are successful are neighborhoods, not just standalone central business districts. To support businesses, we need to create a density of people, with the public interacting with spaces at multiple hours of the day."
Residents here hope this project can reframe Moorhead's reputation in the Upper Midwest. Moorhead backers talk about their town (population nearly 45,000) not as the 23rd-biggest city in Minnesota, but instead as part of one of the state's largest metro areas, with Fargo-Moorhead's population (nearly 260,000) roughly the same as the Duluth and Rochester metros.
The key ingredient to make this new downtown work is attracting a chunk of the existing population to move there. Proposed housing options in the downtown core would include rooftop patio condo buildings, walk-up townhouses and river-view apartments.
Moorhead plans to capitalize on an advantage it has over Fargo: The town's elevation is a few feet higher, therefore less prone to spring flooding. Instead of having Fargo's mammoth flood walls to keep out Red River's high water each spring, Moorhead has earthen levees. That means its new downtown, which is bookended by two public parks, can incorporate the river in a way Fargo's downtown cannot.
Developers plan to start knocking down the mall this summer, and the first phase of private development — with 140 housing units and 15,000 square feet of retail — will begin next spring. Construction of the library and community center is also planned to begin in spring. Infrastructure plans such as roads and utilities are being finalized.
The bulk of the project is expected to be completed in five to seven years.
Meanwhile, construction will begin next year on a downtown infrastructure project costing more than $100 million, using state and federal funds for an 11th Street railroad underpass.
The downtown redevelopment plan will feature a Scandinavian-themed design referring to the city's roots while also nodding to Moorhead's increasing diversity. It will attempt to incorporate the river, trails, green space and nature. For community leaders, it's as important to be connected with downtown Fargo as it is to differentiate Moorhead as uniquely Minnesotan; as a border city, its more progressive politics can be subsumed by North Dakota's more conservative politics, along with its Minnesota identity.
Developers and community leaders hope it all combines to send a message: You're in Minnesota now, not Fargo.
"You talk to people in Moorhead, they're trying to seek and find an identity, a center of gravity," City Manager Dan Mahli said. "When you cross the river, you'll feel like you're entering Minnesota: water, trees, life. It's different. You're not seeing a big floodwall."
Locals have been wowed by the vision, developers and leaders say.
"I can hardly wait for that wrecking ball to take that first building down," said Sheri Larson, executive director of the Moorhead Business Association.
But one expert on creating sustainable and financially resilient urban cores urges caution about that type of home-run ambition, instead advocating for slower, more organic development in struggling urban areas.
"This screams out to me as this whole pattern of very top-down urban renewal concepts: Wipe it away and put something brand new in its place," said Norm Van Eeden Petersman, director of membership and development for Strong Towns, a nonprofit advocacy organization. "The challenge is that the whole scheme is so ambitious. Deals like this go sideways all too frequently."
But Moorhead leaders see little to lose.
"We're tired of being second," Mayor Shelly Carlson said. "We're not trying to be Fargo — but Fargo is never going to be Moorhead, either."