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McFeely: On Moorhead's Center Avenue, the past is the future

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Kevin Bartram is redeveloping the building, originally built in the 1920s as a potato warehouse, into apartments. Mike McFeely / The Forum2 / 4
Now called the Simon Warehouse, the building on Center Avenue was originally a potato warehouse built in 1922. Photo courtesy of the Clay County Historical Society3 / 4
The first Moorhead armory was built in the 1920s on Center Avenue and later became home to car dealerships. Photo courtesy of the Clay County Historical Society4 / 4

The Simon Warehouse on Center Avenue in Moorhead is one of those buildings you drive past and barely notice, despite its massive size. It is old, it is tired, it looks like it's falling apart. It can't be good for much of anything in this high-tech 21st century, right?

Kevin Bartram, a Fargo-based architect and developer, has different ideas, ones he's put to work before in both Moorhead and Fargo. He sees opportunity to revitalize and remake buildings like the Simon Warehouse into usable and, yes, profitable space while pumping new life into areas of town badly in need of it.

The past is becoming Moorhead's future.

Bartram, of the Sterling Co. and Mutchler Bartram Architects among other business interests, is emerging as a key developer as Moorhead tries to attract people to its long-dormant downtown area. In addition to redeveloping the nearly century-old Simon building into 65 apartments, he's also reworking a nearby building that served as Moorhead's first armory. Built in the 1920s, like the Simon Warehouse, the old armory was later used as car dealerships before becoming dilapidated storage space. Bartram is turning that into an events center.

Bartram is also building a 45-unit apartment building on the site of the old Knights of Columbus hall on Main Avenue, next to Hornbacher's. He redeveloped the Kassenborg Block on Main Ave., the building in which Rustica restaurant is located.

"What I like about these old buildings is you get tear everything out and all you have left is the building itself and you get to work with that," Bartram said while giving a tour of Simon Warehouse. "It's really cool."

The warehouse is an imposing three-story, 84,000-square foot brick structure that was the largest building in Fargo-Moorhead when it was built by potato magnate Leo J. Wright in 1922. Tucked between railroad tracks and Center Avenue, it was used to store spuds until they were ready for shipment. The interior now is dark and dusty, with some graffiti not suitable for a family publication here and there, pigeon droppings covering parts of a dark stairway, old-time radiators hanging on the walls. And columns. There are floor-to-ceiling columns everywhere on each floor.

"We looked at doing some other things here," Bartram said. "But we settled on apartments because with so many columns nothing else was going to work very well."

The building remains pretty much the same as it's been for nearly 100 years. On the second floor, Bartram walked to a window to show that it's original, installed only four years after the end of World War I. He wants to install new ones, but has to walk a fine line in making major changes because he is seeking historical designation for the building. That could lead to tax credits.

Expected to be completed next year, the Simon Warehouse apartments will probably cost about $800 a month for a one-bedroom and $1,000 for a two-bedroom, heat included. Bartram said he might include utilities, which would bump up the price.

"We really like Moorhead because of the three colleges. There's a lot of opportunity there. But what we found with the Kassenborg Building is it's really a mix of tenants, not just the college kids. We expect the same here," Bartram said.

The armory, at 904 Center Ave. immediately west of the Simon Warehouse, is an equally cool space. You'd never know zipping past in your car, in part because the auto dealers who used the building added a front entrance and a steel addition to the east (which will be torn down). The interior is a large open space with wood floors and an exposed wood-beam peaked ceiling.

"It's going to be something, I think, that Moorhead doesn't have right now. You can see weddings, dances, bands and things like that in here," Bartram said.

City officials are excited with Bartram's work because it is juicing up the downtown area while adding apartment units. Moorhead's goal is to get 500 rental units downtown in the next five years. The idea is to get people, foot traffic, activity, business and buzz — just like downtown Fargo.

Another developer, Andrew Skatvold, is remodeling a building at 814 Center Ave. into retail space and a four-bedroom residential unit with a rooftop patio.

"In the next couple of years you're going to see about three blocks of improvements on the same side of Center Ave.," Bartram said. "It's going to be very noticeable. It's going to be good for Moorhead."

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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