Downtown Fargo

Map of what old downtown Fargo looked like

By Andrew Jason


Downtown Baby… Whether you like that saying or you hate it, it’s hard to deny that downtown Fargo is the hotspot. Go back to 1869 when the city’s first building was constructed in what is now Island Park. Stop and take a look around at what’s happening now with the arts and dining. Fast-forward to promises of skyscrapers and event centers. No matter when and where you look, downtown was/is/will be playing an integral part in the story of Fargo.



The railroad played an integral part in the history of Fargo. In fact, it played such an important part that without it there probably wouldn’t be a Fargo. When the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived in Moorhead in 1872, this area was still a no man’s land. The first tent town in the Fargo area was built by the intersection of Broadway and Main Avenue. That was when downtown Fargo started.

The Fargo area grew quickly over the coming years. From 1880 to 1900 the population of Cass County went from 8,998 to 19,613 (North Dakota went from 36,909 to 319,983). A large number of immigrants flocked to Fargo from Europe. The rapidly evolving Fargo took a hit in 1893 with the Fargo fire. This fire burned about 3/5 of the structures in Fargo. (According to legend, someone throwing ashes outside their house on a dry and windy day started the fire.) However, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

According to John Hallberg, an archives associate with NDSU Archives, that fire helped revive the city with construction of brick buildings. Warehouses began to pop up downtown as the city progressed. The railroads became an even stronger economic force in the city as many goods were shipped through the city.

Fargo also remained a major draw for people from across the state. That draw made it possible for hotels, shops and restaurants to pop up throughout downtown. After World War II there was a lot of growth as people returned home. However, once West Acres Shopping Center was built in 1972, downtown Fargo went into a state of stagnation. Many department stores and restaurants moved out of downtown, leaving mainly offices and banks.

However, with the enactment of the Renaissance Zone Plan in 1999, businesses began to flock back downtown. This plan created tax incentives for businesses to move downtown and is one of the main reasons that downtown Fargo is the hotspot it is today.


Old Fargo
According to Hallberg, in the late 1800s, Fargo had a reputation as a wild city. North Dakota was a dry state, but Minnesota wasn’t, so everyone would flock over to Moorhead to the bars. Moorhead had a wild nightlife. Prostitution was also a common offense. At the time there was a $50 fine for prostitution. The ladies would make so much money off of their illegal activities that they were easily able to afford that fine. There were also very lax divorce laws so many people came to Fargo simply to get divorced.

Where’s downtown Fargo going?

John Hallberg: “That’s really hard to know. I can only hope that it continues to improve. I think that with NDSU having a downtown campus that’s made a major impact on there as well. … There’s a lot of unforeseen things that could happen in the future so it’s hard for me to say, but I’d say that hopefully it’s back.”



Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably noticed some changes happening downtown. World class dining has come to Fargo. Artists are finding a place to call home. Local bands are able to showcase their talents every weekend. The list of changes keeps going. After a drought that lasted throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, revitalization took place. In 1999 the Renaissance Zone Plan took pace giving tax incentives to businesses looking to build and develop in downtown Fargo.

That plan brought businesses like the Hotel Donaldson and Monte’s. Those businesses quickly became staples in the community. Once those businesses proved that downtown was able to support unique businesses, more flocked to the area. Zandbroz arrived with their eclectic array of vintage crafts and goods. Business after business began to assemble back downtown and hasn’t showed any signs of slowing down.

“People want to be in an environment in which they’re much more densely built, they can socialize easier,” said Downtown Community Partnership President Michael Hahn. “They want to head downstairs to the local pub to watch the local game with a bunch of people.”

They can do just that downtown as residential property pops up above many retail spots. However, one major factor that any developing community must address is public transportation. While the Metro Area Transit bus system isn’t perfect, it has continued to make improvements year after year. “Mass transit is still going to be huge and maybe even huger as we work down the road,” said Hahn. “There’s some developments that are going to really amp up what Fargo is, which is a neat community.”

In fact, ask almost anyone in town and they’ll probably tell you downtown has changed for the better. “It’s been very interesting because it’s changed tremendously and it’s a different downtown from 20 years ago,” said Greg Zandbroz, owner of Zandbroz Variety. “They both have their charms but I like the new one much better. … Lots of fun, lots of really bright and creative people downtown these days and I think that’s what’s making it really exciting.”


Photo by J. Alan Paul Photograph
Photo by J. Alan Paul Photograph
According to Ben Hushka, the city assessor for Fargo, the amount of tax revenue that the Renaissance Zone has brought to the area has tripled since it began in 1999. By 2017, the Renaissance Zone hopes to bring in over $2,000,000 additional tax revenue to the city and county.


Where’s downtown going?

Michael Hahn: “From my perspective, I think it’s all about being more cosmopolitan. Much more of our vacant spaces that are empty now are going to be built. It’s just going to become a really neat mix of kind of something that’s unique to North Dakota.”



Spoiler alert: It’s impossible to tell the future. Here at Fargo Monthly we don’t claim to be psychics, but after talking with the experts, we have some good ideas where downtown Fargo is heading and this illustration could very well be what the future of downtown Fargo looks like.

This illustration showcases the Block 9 project proposed by the Kilbourne Group, an organization that is dedicated to the redevelopment of downtown Fargo. This project would rejuvenate downtown with a proposed skyscraper that would house retail, hotel, office condos and a restaurant. This project has been in the works for several years, and the Kilbourne Group has put plenty of thought and effort into this ambitious project.

“It’s in a location where a project is only going to be built one time for the next couple hundred years so we are putting as much thought into this project as possible and we’re aspiring for the very best project that can be imagined for this location,” said Mike Allmendinger, general manager of the Kilbourne Group. “We believe that it’s the best location for a mixed-use building in all of North Dakota.”

The exact details of the project are still in the works. The Kilbourne Group is currently in the process of figuring out the market demand for retail and office spaces. There are still a number of factors that need to be figured out before any ground can be broken and construction started.

The ideas of the Kilbourne Group don’t just end there though. Their project also includes plans for a proposed floodwall, new civic center and city hall and a whole new way of thinking of green space downtown. Those prospects that await in the near future are causing some buzz and excitement.

When asked about the potential of downtown, Brad Wimmer, owner of Wimmer’s Diamonds, a company that has been downtown for almost 100 years, had a sense of excitement for the future. “I see it only getting better. With the US Bank Plaza possibly coming and the new City Hall coming and convention center, a new entertainment center. The restaurants. The bars. I think downtown is just going to flourish in the next 25 years.”

2nd ave flyover rev2
In case these projects seem unnecessary, it should be noted that by 2040 the population of Fargo-Moorhead is expected to grow by 33 percent, reaching a population of 262,890. This stat provided by the Fargo-Moorhead Metropolitan Council of Governments shows that more business space is needed throughout in the near future.


Kilbourne Group1
Photos courtesy of Kilbourne Group


Flood Protection – 2nd Street floodwall project:

·      Proposed budget: $21-$40 million

·      Decision-makers: City of Fargo/Corps of Engineers

·      Funding source: Federal and city flood sales tax


New Fargo City Hall project:

·      Budget: $8-$12 million

·      Decision-makers: City of Fargo commissioners

·      Funding source: City of Fargo/State of ND


Convention center/exhibition space/Civic Center renovation 

·      Budget: To be decided after consultants’ feasibility study

·      Decision-makers: Fargo Dome Authority recommendation with City of Fargo approval.

·      Funding source: a portion of Fargo Dome Authority reserve fund ($37 million); other sources TBD


Block 9:        

•    Budget: $90 million

•    Decision-makers: Kilbourne Group

•    Funding source: Private investments, including potential tenants


Publicly owned parking structures (which could include a city-owned ramp adjacent to the east side of the Block 9 complex, and an additional ramp, possibly on Roberts Street and 2nd Ave.)

•   Budget: $20-$40 million for multiple ramps

•   Decision-makers: City of Fargo commissioners

    Funding source: A downtown Fargo TIF (tax increment financing), with primary funds from new property taxes generated by Block 9. These new property taxes for the City of Fargo would be allocated to the city-owned parking structure.



1856 – According to NDSU Archives, the first known non-Native Americans arrived to explore what became Fargo. This was a survey party sent out to find a northern route for the railroad to the Pacific.

October 6, 1871: The first post office was established in what would become downtown Fargo. At the time it was called Centralia. In 1872 the name was changed to Fargo after William Fargo, a director and financial backer of the railroad and a partner in the Wells-Fargo Express Company.

1890 – The North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station offices were opened on the third floor of the Red River Bank at 11 Broadway. This was one of the early forms of North Dakota State University.

June 7, 1893: The worst fire Fargo has ever seen started at the Little Gem Restaurant and spread from one wooden building to the next. By the end of the fire, over 160 acres and 31 blocks were destroyed.

1904: The Edwards building was constructed. After several tenants and renovations, the Old Broadway would move into this location in 1975.

1931: The Black Building, one of Fargo’s most notable buildings, was built at 112 Broadway. The building offered a couple of floors for a Sears store and six stories for offices.

1960s: The Urban Renewal Project took place, which brought commercial renewal to the area from Fourth Street to the Red River.

Aug. 2, 1972: West Acres Shopping Center opened, which drew a lot of business away from the downtown area.

1999: The City of Fargo adopted the Renaissance Zone Plan, which created tax incentives for business development. This brought more business to downtown Fargo.


Population record from 1870 to 2010

1870: ND: 2,405

1880: ND: 36,909 Cass County: 8,998 Fargo: 2,693

1890: ND: 190,983 Cass County: 19,613 Fargo: 5,664

1900: ND: 319,146 Cass County: 28,625 Fargo: 9,589

1910: ND: 577,056 Cass County: 33,935 Fargo: 14,331

1920: ND: 646,872 Cass County: 41,477 Fargo: 21,961

1930: ND: 680,845 Cass County: 48,735 Fargo: 28,619

1940: ND: 641,935 Cass County: 52, 849 Fargo: 32, 580

1950: ND; 619,636 Cass County: 58,877 Fargo: 38,256

1960: ND: 632,446 Cass County: 66,947 Fargo: 46,662

1970: ND: 617,792 Cass County: 73,653 Fargo: 53,365

1980 ND: 652,717 Cass County: 88,247 Fargo: 61,383

1990: ND: 638,800 Cass County: 102,874 Fargo: 74,115

2000: ND: 642,200 Cass County: 123,138 Fargo: 90,599

2010: ND: 672,591 Cass County: 149,778 Fargo: 105,549

* Source: US Census Bureau

Andrew Jason

Written by Andrew Jason

Andrew Jason is the Editorial Director at Spotlight Media. He oversees the production and the wonderful team behind Fargo Monthly, Fargo INC!, Bison Illustrated and Design and Living magazines. In his free time, he enjoys running marathons and pretending he's a much better piano player than he actually is.

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