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What I’ve Learned Being Downtown For 25 Years

Photo by Hillary Ehlen

I’m Josie Danz, the manager of Zandbroz Variety. My title is manager, but some joke that I’ve been running the place since I was six years old and would beg my dad to let me go to work with him. We opened Zandbroz in Downtown Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in 1989, and two years later in the winter of 1991, we opened Zandbroz in the heart of Downtown Fargo.

Zandbroz is a family business. My dad Greg and my uncle Jeff started the business with their wives (my mom Renee and my aunt Kelly) with the idea to sell a little bit of everything they loved. One of the first things they were sure of was that they wanted to be downtown. They believed in the potential and importance of downtowns–even when at the time in both Sioux Falls and Fargo, no one else seemed to. They also believed in the importance of revitalizing and giving new life to old buildings. With those values in mind, they purchased an old building in Sioux Falls that used to be home to Kinney’s Shoe Store. After two years, and relative success, they thought, what better place to open a second store than Downtown Fargo? If you are familiar with what the state of downtown Fargo was in the early ’90s, you’re probably thinking that there are many places that would have made a lot more sense to open a business–like, pretty much anywhere.

Zandbroz in Fargo is housed in the former Leeby’s Grocery Store. Most people told us we’d never last and that we were crazy to invest in a “dying part of town.” Here we are, though, nearly 26 years later, stronger than ever. Both the Sioux Falls Zandbroz and the Fargo Zandbroz have endured some ugly, challenging times, and we’ve learned a lot along the way. So, without further ado, here are the top 25 things I’ve learned about being a part of downtown for over 25 years.

  1. I no longer envy other downtowns. There’s no place I’d rather work, live or play.
  2. In fact, Downtown Fargo has become a model downtown that other cities hope to replicate.
  3. Change doesn’t happen without work and passion. A business can’t thrive on just passion, and it certainly won’t succeed with only hard work.
  4. With the help of a handful of influencers who believed in downtown, it has done a complete 180 from when I was a little girl.
  5. Persistence pays. I learned from my dad at a young age that sometimes you have to play the “bad guy” and go against popular opinion. You can’t be afraid to stand up for what you believe in, which sometimes means you’re going to be the only voice in the room representing a change that you believe needs to happen. If you are strong in your convictions, eventually someone is bound to listen.
  6. I learned from my mom that the easiest way to give people a reason to come back is by creating an experience they won’t have anywhere else. Make it more than a trip to the store by creating an environment that alone is worth the trip. Downtown does this with its neighborhood feel and unique character and charm.
  7. Downtown is safe. Even in downtown’s roughest days and even as a single, young woman, I have never felt unsafe. There are all walks of life downtown, but that doesn’t make it dangerous. Most unsavory incidents that happen occur late at night amongst people that know each other who have been drinking. I encourage you to get out and explore downtown and get a true feel for how enjoyable it is to walk around and take in all that’s around you.
  8. The walkability of downtown is something that we often take for granted.
  9. Lack of parking is something we would have been happy about 10 to 15 years ago. If we take advantage of walkability, parking no longer becomes a problem. Chances are, if you walk a block or two, you’ll discover something you never knew was there. Walking downtown is not like walking somewhere like 13th Avenue–it’s very pedestrian friendly.
  10. Downtown is much more than just Broadway. It’s exciting to see downtown continue to develop on Roberts, First Avenue, NP Avenue, Main and Eighth Street. This will continue as more projects are finalized and what were once desolate streets continue to become vibrant and lively.
  11. There are a lot of memories associated with downtown, and with those memories comes a lot of history. Every week we get people in that share their fond memories of Leeby’s with us. We recently learned that even before Zandbroz was Leeby’s, our building was divided in half, and on one side was another grocery store called Rose Grocery. It’s not just our building that’s rich with history–many of downtown’s buildings have a story to tell.
  12. Downtown is its own community that thrives off the support of others in the downtown community. We work together and support each other, rather than compete–and when we do, it’s not only a lot more fun, but we’re also more successful and stronger because of it.
  13. Broadway is unique and deserves to be treated as such. Broadway is our community’s front porch and plays host to events such as the annual Street Fair, parades and ESPN GameDay. Broadway is a treasure to our city and deserves extra TLC.
  14. Downtown defines Fargo. If Fargo didn’t have a vibrant downtown full of unique, small businesses, there’d be nothing that separated us from many other cities. Downtown tells the stories of the people that compose our community. Downtown offers a unique experience that can’t be experienced anywhere else–it’s creative, personal and customized to our city.
  15. Downtown Fargo is one-size-fits-all. Everyone belongs and there is something for everyone. It’s for men and women, blue collar and white. It’s for the hip, but also for the average Joe. There’s fun for the young, and the young at heart. There’s every type of food, and music that ranges everywhere from pop to polka.
  16. People are loyal to and proud of their downtown. It’s the part of our city we’re most likely to show off. Downtown is filled with the restaurants and the businesses that we want to support the most because our friends and neighbors run them and we know that when we visit them we’re supporting our local community.
  17. Every day should be Small Business Saturday. Why not support what’s local every day of the year?
  18. I can’t not be part of downtown, and I’ve tried. Downtown has a charm that can’t be replicated. When I’ve been away from Fargo, I get homesick for my downtown community. It’s nostalgic, yet still contemporary and constantly evolving. Downtown has always been my second home, and now it’s my primary home, too.
  19. Zandbroz has gone from marketing ourselves as a destination shop to simply being part of the destination.
  20. Everything you need can be found in downtown or within walking distance of downtown.
  21. Downtown is the “Pride of the Prairie” (or as Tim Flakoll says, “the Pearl of the Prairie”). Downtown is your oyster and a true treasure.
  22. There are many, what I would call, “downtown faces,” who, whenever I see them, are guaranteed to put a smile on my face.
  23. Even after being downtown for over 25 years, I am constantly discovering new things. Whether it’s a new business or a beautiful architectural detail, I’m amazed that there’s always something more to explore and learn about.
  24. It turns out my dad, Greg, has learned a few things, too. When I asked him, he kept it pretty simple, but I couldn’t agree more: Sense of humor is key, bigger isn’t always better, build it and they will come, and there’s always work to be done.
  25. Settling isn’t an option. We must constantly evolve. Change can be a good thing. There is still a lot to look forward to in downtown. It’s important to continue to stay relevant and never settle to just maintain. Like anything, there is always room to improve and ask, “What’s next?”

After over 25 years in Downtown Fargo, from the desolate early days to the thriving and exciting environment we find ourselves lucky to be part of today, if there is one thing that I know Zandbroz did right and would never change, it’s locating in the heart of downtown. There are still things that I’d like to see in downtown, and still aspects that aren’t perfect. However, by far the most important thing I’ve learned over the years is to believe in the place you call home. Downtown is my home, and I couldn’t be more proud to be part of what it’s become both as a retailer and a resident.

Zandbroz Variety

420 Broadway N, Fargo

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