See more of the story

Officials in Moorhead, Minn., have long looked with envy across the Red River at the thriving downtown scene in Fargo, N.D.

Now they’re taking steps to catch up with their neighbor.

Moorhead has signed an agreement with a local developer to explore the sale of its City Hall and create a new look for its downtown.

“We are ripe for development. We are an untapped market,” said City Manager Christina Volkers. “But nobody wanted to touch the City Hall property.”

In the 1970s, Moorhead razed a major share of its downtown and replaced it with the Moorhead Center Mall. A new City Hall was included as part of the project.

But it’s been years since the mall was a major shopping destination. Meanwhile, the city government needs more space.

The solution: partner with Fargo-based Roers Development to sell City Hall and create a plan to redo the entire site, about 15 acres of potentially valuable riverfront property.

“We anticipate this partnership with the city of Moorhead is just the beginning of major growth for the entire Moorhead community,” CEO Jim Roers said in a statement. “It’s an exciting time for the community.”

The city and the downtown business community already have been seeking input on ideas for the mall area, Volkers said. But the unusual ownership structure of the property has posed a challenge.

The mall is organized as a condominium. The city owns the City Hall portion, the surrounding parking areas and the interior hallways. A private development group also owns a large share of the property.

Some mall merchants rent their spaces, while others own theirs. That means the city and the business owners will have to agree on steps going forward.

“It’s kind of a unique building,” said Andrew Nielsen, who took over as the mall’s general manager earlier this year. “I’ve never experienced anything like this.”

Nielsen said the mall owners’ group has met with Roers “and so far we’re off to a good start. We look forward to working with them and we’re optimistic.”

Tearing down the mall “is not on the table,” Nielsen added. “It’s taking what we already have and improving on it.”

As president of the Fargo-based Kilbourne Group, Mike Allmendinger has been involved with many of Fargo’s successful redevelopment projects. An important factor in downtown Fargo’s rebirth, he said, was the city’s commitment to new infrastructure that made the area more walkable.

“The walkability and mixed-use projects are key to a vibrant downtown,” Allmendinger said. “We’re excited to see the leadership in Moorhead embracing the goal of creating a walkable, mixed-use downtown.”

Both Fargo and Moorhead — along with many other U.S. cities — tore down historic buildings during the urban-renewal movement of the 1960s and ’70s, Allmendinger said. But Fargo had a larger downtown to begin with, leaving it with more to work with when the tide turned toward preserving and repurposing historic downtowns.

At a recent Moorhead City Council meeting, council members were enthusiastic about the potential of the project.

“I just want to express my excitement,” said Council Member Deb White. “This is really a pivotal time.”

Added Mayor Johnathan Judd: “I think those of us that have been elected to sit here have had public input for years regarding our current situation.

“The residents obviously want to see some action down here.”

John Reinan • 612-673-7402