Northern MN lessons from the ‘town for misfits’



For weeks, I’ve been enjoying some success at this blog writing about “Fargo” the TV show on the FX network. One of the most common questions about that show is “why do they call it ‘Fargo’ when most of it takes place in northern Minnesota?”

My view is that in both the movie and the book, “Fargo” describes a distant place where an act occurs that entirely disturbs an innocent, unrelated society somewhere else. Fargo is supposed to be mysterious, obscure. The fictional Bemidji in the show doesn’t control what the Fargo mob does, but they do pay the price nonetheless.

But stepping out of this fictional realm, we now see that Fargo the actual city has some good things going for it, and that in this instance it wouldn’t be a bad thing for Fargo to rub off on northern Minnesota. Indeed, many of our towns are set up for similar success, if we’re willing to work for it.

As this Star Tribune Sunday, June 1 feature shows, Fargo is stepping out of its old reputation into that of a western city friendly to creatives and young professionals. In its own words, Fargo is becoming “a town for misfits.”

This, from the Jennifer Brooks story in the Strib:

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.”

It helps that North Dakota has a booming oil economy that is generating revenue for the whole state, to the degree that the state has to tax very few things to pay for services. That’s not a luxury most other states have right now, and it is tied to a natural resource which, as we know here on the Iron Range, can rear up on you at some point. But we have natural resources wealth, too, and that’s not nothing.

But the thing about the Fargo story that interests me is how the city is finding ways to generate activity in a small area — a self-propelling economic and cultural engine, so to speak. Fargo has more action in five blocks than the city of Hibbing has in a huge area filled with roads and stoplights. What’s Hibbing’s biggest economic problem? Arguably, one of the big ones is figuring out what to do with the downtown, which is decaying before the eyes of everyone willing to acknowledge reality.

And Hibbing is far from alone in this problem: cities across the Iron Range are in the same position. What if a band of misfits (Lord knows we have our share) got things going in low cost, high energy ways in the vacant, affordable spaces left behind by past generations?

Could be good. Could be a solution.

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