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Fargo blogger 'ambivalent' about city's positive attention, sparks social media conversation

Adam Copeland

FARGO – In this boomtown, there are plenty of cheerleaders praising the city’s successes.

Adam Copeland is a reluctant one.

Fargo has become the nation’s media darling in recent years, touted for its surprising culture, low unemployment and friendly people, with recent profiles of life here appearing in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis and the Washington Post

But Copeland, 31, a religion professor at Concordia College and Ph.D. student at North Dakota State University, said there’s reason to be skeptical about all the back-patting.

“I share the excitement,” he said Wednesday, “but I also don’t want that to be unrealistic and don’t want to present to larger media markets and more folks that we’ve got it all figured out, because we don’t.”

Copeland has written a blog post called “I’m #AmbivalentAboutFargo, & You Should Be Too,” which has sparked some conversation on social media. The author said his post has been shared more than 500 times since being published Monday to his blog

In it, he argues that the positive press Fargo receives is well-deserved but often one-sided, focusing on the glamour and not on the grime, the struggles of a booming city.

He points out sky-rocketing homelessness, rising rents and a half-forgotten community of new Americans, and he calls on Fargo residents to be more forthright in discussing the city’s shortcomings.

“It’s important to be able to tell the Fargo story and we certainly can do that with pride,” Copeland said. “It’s also important to make sure that story is accurate and including the pieces that we’re not so proud of.”

Charley Johnson, president and CEO of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he believes Copeland is actually being quite positive in his ambivalence.

“I took the article to be kind of a statement of, yes, we are doing really well here, but let’s not forget that there’s always room for improvement,” Johnson said. “Who could disagree with that?”

Dave Anderson, who gained notoriety in the early 2000s as “Downtown Dave” for his role in transforming downtown Fargo, said being ambivalent about a thriving city is an “unfortunate point of view.”

Anderson said Copeland raises some good points, like Fargo’s need for more affordable housing, but he argued that a booming city has more resources to deal with its problems.

“Fargo’s been a community, in my opinion, that has always tackled those tough issues,” Anderson said.

On the map

With booming economies and populations, Fargo and North Dakota have recently been featured in several interest stories and Top 10 lists. called North Dakota one of America’s best-educated states, Gallup said it’s the happiest place to live and USA Today called North Dakota one of the best-run states in the nation.

And when national media come to talk about these accolades, they also want to find out more about the state’s largest city, said Craig Whitney, president and CEO of the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber.

“All those things kind of help put us on the map,” Whitney said.

That leads to things like a recent Washington Post article, in which travel writer Lynn Freehill-Maye took a trip to Fargo and found it surprisingly “underrated.” There’s also the recent Star Tribune story about Fargo reinventing itself amid the boom.

Both stories focus on Fargo’s revitalized downtown, with the authors incredulously pointing out that the city has interesting cultural venues and high-class restaurants.

Copeland said it’s frustrating that outside journalists who visit Fargo seem to forget about writing a balanced story, choosing to focus only on the good and avoiding the bad.

These “overly optimistic” reports by outsiders can also affect Fargo natives, he argued.

“It can be patronizing, and it can go to our heads, in sort of strange ways,” Copeland said. “We can think, ‘Oh, because we have art and because we have a nice restaurant or two, we’ve made it.’ And that’s not necessarily true.”

To some extent, Whitney said the purpose of those articles is to trumpet the successes of Fargo

“It seems kind of crazy to expect that they’re going to – at the same time they’re applauding us – going to try to point out areas that we need to improve on,” he said.

But by not talking about the full story of Fargo, we might be avoiding areas in which progress is needed, said Jessica Jorgenson, a doctoral candidate in English at NDSU, who took a liking to Copeland’s #AmbivalentAboutFargo hashtag activism.

“It’s like looking through rose-colored glasses,” she said. “You’re only seeing what you want to see. But in order for something to grow, you also have to take it apart and look at its weaknesses and work on those.”

If these writers were to travel outside of downtown Fargo, they’d likely find a much different town, Copeland said.

“They’d find older neighborhoods that have diverse populations, some that are struggling to make ends meet,” he said. “And they’d find a lot of apartment complexes that struggle to build community.”

Fargo needs prophets

Perhaps one of Fargo’s biggest cheerleaders is Marc de Celle, author of “How Fargo of You” and “Close Encounters of the Fargo Kind,” two books that detail de Celle’s own incredulous experiences in the state’s biggest city.

De Celle said he still thinks Fargo is a unique place worth championing, but he believes Copeland has struck a chord.

“(He’s) saying we ought not get carried away with all the great press we’re getting and start believing we’re God’s gift to America,” de Celle said. “Instead, let’s stay humble and self-critical and thereby, keep doing our best to improve.”

Copeland said his #AmbivalentAboutFargo campaign is born out of his love for Fargo.

The Florida native has only lived here for three years, but he has enjoyed it. His wife is a born-and-raised North Dakotan from Adams. Copeland also realizes that his viewpoint is a bit skewed: for one, he can afford to live downtown while some of his friends have been forced out by rising rent.

The religion professor used familiar terminology to drive his message home. There are a lot of Fargo evangelists right now, those who trumpet the successes of the city whenever possible.

“That’s really important and I affirm those,” Copeland said. “But we also need prophets, and prophets sometimes tell communities what we don’t want to hear.”

Does Copeland consider himself a prophet?

“I’m just a blogger,” he said with a laugh.

But he is hoping to start some conversations, and it appears he already has.

Erik Burgess
Erik Burgess covers city and county government for The Forum. He started as the paper's night reporter in 2012, after graduating from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. He was born and raised in Grand Forks, N.D., and also spent time interning at the Grand Forks Herald.  Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to
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