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Editorial: Downtown convention center needs City Hall leadership

The old Townhouse Motor Hotel, which ended its life as a Howard Johnson, was a fixture of downtown Fargo for six decades. It was built in 1961-62, and offered 114 rooms, restaurant, lounge and swimming pool. Located near the Red River, it was a full-service hotel that added vitality to the downtown. More significantly, it was strategically located across the street from the Civic Center. The hotel was demolished to make room for the floodwall that protects downtown, and will be replaced by apartments that will stand next to the new City Hall.

The loss of the Townhouse left a void in hotel accommodations in the resurgent downtown, which continues to fill in with residential and commercial buildings, often a blend of the two, and hums with vitality. Downtown is becoming more and more of a people magnet, drawing increasing numbers of shoppers, restaurant diners and patrons of taverns and nightclubs.

It's significant to note that the Townhouse was built soon after the Civic Center, built in 1961 and part of a downtown urban renewal initiative. The location was a natural for people who traveled to attend events at the Civic. In the more than half century since it was built, however, the Civic Center has lost much of its shine and has fallen behind the times.

For several years, Fargo leaders have talked about building a convention center, but have been torn between locating it near the Fargodome or downtown. A consultant's review found that the downtown location would generate more income than the Fargodome site, and would be cheaper to build. There has been little momentum behind the new convention center, however. City leaders have allowed the proposal to languish, almost to the point of being forgotten. Quite frankly, there is no visible champion of the convention center from the ranks of city leaders to spur on the proposal and advocate for its rightful place, downtown.

That's a shame. And we're starting to see the cost of that neglect. The $100 million Block 9 tower is plagued by delays, in large part over the uncertainty of its hotel partner, due to the ownership change of TMI Hospitality, which planned a European-style, 88-room hotel occupying several floors of the tower, which would rise from the heart of downtown. Besides securing a dedicated hotel, the project's partners now are talking about scaling back the size of the hotel, the result of the glut in hotel rooms until the market absorbs the 500 rooms added in the past two years.

Imagine if the city were moving ahead with a downtown convention center. Does anyone think the investors in the Block 9 tower would be hesitating about building a new downtown hotel? Do you think the conversation would be about downsizing a hotel? Think of what a convention center would add in making downtown Fargo a destination. North Dakota's largest city, and the "capital" city of the Red River Valley, should host a major regional convention center. And its rightful place is downtown.

The Civic Center helped propel downtown in the 1960s. A new convention center can be an even greater spur of downtown development today, and would help ensure that the momentum downtown not only continues, but builds. But that will take strong leadership in City Hall. Any takers?

Editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.