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ST. CLOUD – Twenty-five years ago, downtown Fargo was a hodgepodge of half-filled office buildings, a few bars and crumbling parking lots along the city's main drag.

"Broadway was just dead," said Jim Gilmour, strategic planning director for Fargo, who started with the city in the mid-1990s. "There was no one there. You could probably shoot a cannon down the street and not hit anyone."

But today, after a concerted effort by leaders to attract more than $500 million in public and private investments, the downtown core is bustling: It has an array of boutiques and one-of-a-kind restaurants. It has a historic theater and ambassadors who plant flowers, pick up trash and help visitors. It even has an ice skating rink, which was featured in a social media post shared by actress Alexandra Daddario on New Year's Eve.

"It got 11 million views and 500,000 likes on TikTok," said Rocky Schneider, who leads the Downtown Community Partnership in Fargo.

The North Dakota city's success has garnered attention from national urbanists as a playbook for how to revitalize a downtown. And leaders in another Midwest city — St. Cloud — are trying to put that playbook into action right now.

"We're essentially just kind of copying what Fargo did but at a little bit smaller scale," said Greg Windfeldt, president of St. Cloud-based Preferred Credit, Inc. and head of a task force created by the mayor to help revamp the downtown.

So how did downtown Fargo reinvent itself to become a hotbed of Instagrammable activities? Leaders credit a long-range plan to bring people downtown to live in new apartments and condos, which then helped usher in other redevelopment.

A cyclist rides past a building at 635 Second Ave. N that houses 46 North Pints and RoCo Apartments on May 16 in Fargo.
A cyclist rides past a building at 635 Second Ave. N that houses 46 North Pints and RoCo Apartments on May 16 in Fargo.

Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune

St. Cloud looks to be Fargo 2.0

Windfeldt and a group of task force members visited Fargo last June to see its transformation. They left with serious Fargo envy — and a strategy to revitalize downtown St. Cloud with new housing and a plan to pay for beautification efforts.

St. Cloud's downtown, just west of the Mississippi River, has several beloved local restaurants, a few bars that draw crowds in the evening and some small specialty shops. But it's struggled in recent years, especially since the pandemic when many office workers went remote and some never returned.

Fargo has nearly double the population of St. Cloud, but the cities are similar in other ways as college towns, as well as a regional hubs for jobs, shopping and health care.

But downtown St. Cloud has a serious perception problem in the community, according to Windfeldt.

"When I'm out in the community, all I hear is, 'Oh, I don't go downtown. It's not safe,'" he said. "It's like we have this need to bad-mouth our community or bad-mouth our downtown. Well, that doesn't do any good."

Police Chief Jeff Oxton said downtown is not one of St. Cloud's problem spots for crime.

Crime data shows no assaults, robberies or burglaries during the daytime and only a handful of calls for service beginning after 10 p.m. since the beginning of the year, Oxton said. Most calls for service are between midnight and 3:30 a.m., and are typically mutual fights after bar close.

"The types of crimes that typically worry people when you see what's on the news in the downtown area of Minneapolis — robberies, carjackings, shootings — we have zeros in the downtown," Oxton said of this year's data.

Windfeldt has also found that residents aren't aware of the positive changes downtown: In the past few years, more than 25 businesses have either moved into the downtown, moved locations or expanded. The city has also installed meters connected to kiosks or a mobile app to simplify parking, and made the parking ramps free in the evenings and on weekends.

The city has recently offered grants for downtown businesses to improve building exteriors and is requesting $100 million in bonding to improve pedestrian safety and walkability. But the downtown lacks housing, which is the key to bringing foot traffic downtown, according to Chris Leinberger, an urban strategist who spoke at a 2022 summit organized by St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis to spearhead revitalization efforts.

Kleis has said he hopes to add 1,000 downtown housing units in the next five years. It's an aggressive goal — and takes a page from Fargo's playbook — but it is in line with the community's housing needs: A study recently released by the city estimates demand for more than 4,000 new general apartments and 1,500 new senior units by 2030.

Adding apartments and condos will help create an epicenter of activity that benefits the entire community, said Windfeldt, whose lending company is based in St. Cloud and wants the area to attract employees who might otherwise choose remote work.

"How do we get them to move to the community and be part of the community?," he said. "I think a vibrant downtown helps with that."

Cameron and Sydney Persons enjoy an ice cream lunch date at the Broadway Square on May 16 in downtown Fargo.
Cameron and Sydney Persons enjoy an ice cream lunch date at the Broadway Square on May 16 in downtown Fargo.

Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune

A 'lesson in persistence'

Fargo's downtown housing boom had a champion in former Mayor Bruce Furness, who was mayor from 1994-2006.

"The analogy he always used was if an apple is rotten at its core, then the rest of the city is going to be in poor shape," said Gilmour, the city planning director.

Fargo leaders started by changing city ordinances to allow more housing downtown and changing a law to allow for new tax incentives for downtown redevelopment. Changed happened slowly, with Gilmour calling it a "lesson in persistence": first 10 units in 2001, then 14 in 2004, and then a big project with 104 units completed in 2008. It kept going from there.

Altogether, more than 1,500 units have been added downtown through about 30 redevelopment projects totaling $234 million.

"Somebody kind of has to go first — take the risk — and then when they're successful, other developers look at doing it," Gilmour said.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum was among the developers who invested in redevelopment projects. His company Kilbourne Group has completed five projects totaling $80 million since 2018 and currently has two projects under construction.

Fargo leaders also credit the city's creation of a downtown business improvement district, which collects special property taxes to pay for beautification projects, enhanced snow removal and ambassadors who empty garbage cans and guide visitors.

"That's helpful to have those boots on the ground," Schneider said of the contracted employees who wear bright blue shirts and are easily identifiable. "You're hiring good Samaritans to walk up and down the street and do all the things we all should do: If you see garbage, throw it away. They make it look like a place you want to be in."

In St. Cloud, Windfeldt and other task force members are reaching out to downtown business owners, asking for support of a petition to implement a business improvement district like Fargo's. He hopes to ask the City Council to create the district this summer and begin collecting taxes next year.

To help offset the assessments to property owners and jumpstart the hiring of ambassadors, task force members asked businesses, nonprofits and individuals from across the region to commit to donations over the next five years.

The response was overwhelming, Windfeldt said: "We went out and said a vibrant downtown really benefits all of central Minnesota. And in seven weeks, we raised $600,000."

Cleaning ambassador Shannon Burton pressure washes the sidewalks on May 16 in Fargo.
Cleaning ambassador Shannon Burton pressure washes the sidewalks on May 16 in Fargo.

Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune