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Published April 04, 2011, 12:00 AM

Fargo, state of North Dakota media darlings

Cited for economy, education, values and ‘cool factor’
In New York, they’re cooing about the Dakota work ethic. In Southern California, they’re casting longing glances at the Hotel Donaldson. In Washington, they’re whispering sweet nothings about burgeoning budget surpluses.
It’s the makings of a smoldering national infatuation – or at least a media crush – directed at Fargo and North Dakota.

In New York, they’re cooing about the Dakota work ethic. In Southern California, they’re casting longing glances at the Hotel Donaldson. In Washington, they’re whispering sweet nothings about burgeoning budget surpluses.

It’s the makings of a smoldering national infatuation – or at least a media crush – directed at Fargo and North Dakota. The love letters in the blossoming affair come in the form of fawning profiles, editorials, and best-of lists popping up everywhere from in-flight magazines to the London Times.

These pieces render Fargo in glowing terms using a handful of tropes that have become commonplace in profiles of the city.

Microsoft is shorthand for the growing tech sector (“we’re not just talking about assembling tractors,” as one writer puts it). The Donaldson (a near-obligatory mention in such stories) becomes slang for downtown’s hip side. And the 1996 movie “Fargo” is code for the state’s erstwhile bad rap as a frigid backwater (“Our problem” grumbled one state official to a reporter “is that everybody thinks that it’s a cold, miserable place to live.”)

They marvel that North Dakota, of all places – sparsely populated and farm driven – should set the gold economic standard. And they can’t resist the story (by now, well worn) of the modest state that escaped the Great Recession unspoiled.

The hook is obvious, says Joel Kotkin, an author and national socioeconomic analyst with an unabashed soft spot for North Dakota: “Fargo is doing well at a time when not too many places are.”

Kotkin, who consults for Bismarck-based Praxis Strategy Group, upheld Fargo as an exemplar of heartland boomtowns in a Newsweek feature last July.

“A decade ago, this same street was just another unremarkable central district in a Midwestern down,” he wrote, describing a night on teeming Broadway. “That has all changed.” He sang similar praises for the state in a Wall Street Journal piece in March.

Kotkin was into North Dakota before North Dakota was cool. His turn-ons include an economy rooted in real goods and services (“show me the long-term profit for Facebook compared to the long-term profit for soybeans,” he says) and the success of the state’s urban areas in attracting a young, educated population.

A decade ago, when he would extol the virtues of the state, “people would laugh at me,” he says, accusing him of playing for shock value or simply making it up.

“They’re not laughing so much now,” he said.

That’s because the same themes have caught on with other national commentators, particular since the lingering economic downturn began in 2008. In December that year, a few months after the financial crisis that plunged much of the nation into chaos, The New York Times took notice of the relative calm and prosperity of the upper Great Plains. The headline: “A Placid North Dakota Asks, Recession? What Recession?”

In July 2009, USA Today noted with some astonishment that neither the housing bubble nor flooding had crippled Fargo’s real estate market. In the run-up to the 2010 elections, The Washington Post wondered what voters might be discussing if the economy weren’t so bad. “It’s not impossible to find out,” the Post’s Rachel Dry wrote. “Just head to North Dakota.”

Last month, the state’s appeal went transatlantic with a column in The Times of London that marveled at North Dakota’s financial health (the piece opened, naturally, with a Coen brothers joke).

Aside from the obvious salient points – oil and crop prices – those stories all contain threads of another recurring theme in the Dakotaphile canon: a down-to-earth mindset – “conservative, steady, never-fancy” as The New York Times put it, to keep the state grounded in good times and bad.

Paul Govig, acting commissioner of the state’s department of commerce, acknowledges the state’s work ethic can be easy to romanticize and difficult to quantify, though he says some signs, like lower rates of absenteeism, point to a productive culture.

But he said he does think the state “has a history of valuing education and hard work” that’s shining through in the national conversation.

Govig said his office has seen a sharp uptick in the number of inquires it gets from curious writers in recent years. “It has been way higher this year than in most other years,” he said.

Most of them ask variations of the same question: “What’s going on in North Dakota that’s different than other states?”

At this point, the media interest is building on itself. Stephen Lyons, a freelance writer and author who wrote a feature on the state for December’s issue of American Airlines’ in-flight magazine, said he got the idea after seeing other national stories on the state.

“North Dakota kept floating up to the top, sort of the roaring economy of North Dakota,” he said.

Lyons, who is based in fiscally besieged Illinois, was also curious to explore a state with a surplus. His takeaway from a stay in Fargo: a sense of hope that’s hard to find in regions wracked by economic woes.

“The palatable sense of optimism and contentment you’re likely to feel,” he wrote (positioning the reader – where else? – on the rooftop bar of the HoDo), “runs so counter to the current post-recession malaise in states like California, Ohio and Illinois, you might feel as if you had better double-check the date on your BlackBerry just to make sure you haven’t somehow jumped into the future.”

Cole Carley, president and chief executive of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau – an organization with a vested interest in tracking shining reviews of the area – has certainly noticed the uptick in positive press.

“People are just starved for good news,” he says. “They’re trying to latch onto something that’s positive” – and they’re finding it in Fargo.

For Carley, who’s in the business of marketing the city to potential visitors, the attention isn’t just a badge of honor. It’s a selling point.

When he’s making his pitch, he has the March issue of Forbes magazine, which named Fargo one of the best places to retire, and the April issue of Men’s Journal, which called the city the best place to forget the recession, in his corner.

“People say, ‘Oh yeah, I just saw something on you guys,’ ” he said. “Our cachet has gotten better because there’ve just been more and more news stories.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have the state’s stakeholders quietly pitching their success story when they get the chance. Bob Howells, the California-based writer behind the Men’s Journal piece that deemed Fargo one of the “18 Coolest Towns in America,” says a helpful source within the commerce department put the city on his radar.

He said Fargo’s low profile in the national consciousness – especially among people who know little about the city beyond what they’ve gleaned from popular culture – heightens the city’s appeal as an unexpected gem.

“We’re always interested in cities and entries that are a little bit of a surprise and a little bit off the beaten path,” he said. Other Midwestern cities on his list, which was not ranked, included Minneapolis, Des Moines, Iowa, and Grand Rapids, Mich.

He also said Fargo’s spate of recent appearances in similar features didn’t sway the decision. “It had to make it on its own merits,” he said.

When he looked into those merits, was he surprised by what he found?

“I was a little surprised,” he said. “I think the editors, being in New York, were a lot surprised.”

And then, like so many of their contemporaries, charmed.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502


Here’s what some publications have had to say about us:

  • Best Place to Forget the Recession – “You’ll find clean air and even some nascent hipness (HoDo Lounge martini bar!) in a revitalized downtown full of historic but urban brick buildings.” – Men’s Journal, April 2011

  • Best retirement places. Forbes, March 2011

  • “North Dakota is having the last laugh.” – The London Times, March 3, 2011

  • “The palatable sense of optimism and contentment you’re likely to feel while you’re having a cocktail on the rooftop bar of Fargo’s Hotel Donaldson runs so counter to the current post-recession malaise in states like California, Ohio and Illinois, you might feel as if you had better double-check the date on your BlackBerry just to make sure you haven’t somehow jumped into the future.”

    – American Way, December 2010

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