Fargo reinvents itself as a magnet for creative types and entrepreneurs

  • Article by: JENNIFER BROOKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 3, 2014 - 2:09 PM

There's the Fargo in the movie, and then there's the real one: 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.

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– 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.”

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  • Fargo is in the midst of an economic, cultural and development boom. This view is looking north, along N. Broadway Drive.

  • Entrepreneur Doug Burgum, chairman and founder of Kilbourne Group and chairman of Arthur Ventures, is credited with being instrumental in turning downtown Fargo around.

  • The HoDo Lounge at the Hotel Donaldson is a popular gathering place in downtown Fargo. Once the butt of Coen brothers’ jokes, North Dakota’s largest city is getting the last laugh.

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