MOORHEAD — Once desolate and depressing, First Avenue North in downtown Moorhead is sprouting signs of life.

Center Avenue has a massive warehouse that's been refurbished into trendy apartments, with a new events center next door that's gone from blight to blessing. Next to that is a new taproom, Swing Barrel Brewing Co., that hopes to duplicate the success of nearby Junkyard Brewing.

On Main Avenue, there are new apartments that took the place of vacant lots or tired buildings.

And there is more to come, including a new project in the infant stages on Center Avenue just east of the Moorhead Center Mall that will fill a barren parking lot.

It isn't downtown Fargo — probably never will be — but downtown Moorhead is slowly being transformed. Slowly is the operative word. But take a drive down Main Avenue or First Avenue and the changes are unmistakable.

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"It's starting to get much more robust," said Derrick LaPoint, president and CEO of Downtown Moorhead Inc.

That's thanks largely to several apartment buildings being completed and — this part is important — people occupying them. In late 2018, Moorhead set a goal of opening 500 apartment units downtown in five years. LaPoint said almost 300 units are online now.

The idea is simple enough. A downtown needs people to live in it, shop at its stores, eat at its restaurants, drink at its coffee shops and bars. Apartments provide the people.

"For any of our downtown businesses to succeed, we needed people living in the downtown area. We just didn't have that," LaPoint said.

The Grove. The 9Thirteen Lofts. Simon Warehouse Lofts. Block E. Venne. Those are some of the apartments and mixed-use buildings (commercial space on the ground floor, living space on the floors above), from market rate to high end, that have gone up in downtown Moorhead in recent years.

EPIC Companies of West Fargo built the cornerstone mixed-use building Block E on 8th Street and Main Avenue in downtown Moorhead. David Samson / The Forum
EPIC Companies of West Fargo built the cornerstone mixed-use building Block E on 8th Street and Main Avenue in downtown Moorhead. David Samson / The Forum

There's more to come, both in the near future and further out.

Developer Justin Berg has a new, 33-unit apartment building going up at the corner of Main Avenue and 12th Street, a block east of Hornbacher's. It should be completed this year.

Architect and developer Kevin Bartram, responsible for several Moorhead projects including the 9Thirteen Lofts and rehabilitating the Simon Warehouse from an abandoned potato storage building into apartments, has more cooking. He and his Sterling Companies just completed the purchase of the United Sugars Corp. building at the east end of the Center Mall and the adjacent parking lot at the corner of Center Avenue and 7th Street North.

It'll be a couple of years until it's complete, but Bartram plans to develop the parking lot into a mixed-use structure with commercial space on the first floor and apartments above. There might be condominiums on the top floor. The United Sugars building will remain office space.

"We're just getting started, just kind of getting going on it. We acquired the property May 1, so there's nothing definite," Bartram said. "It's just sort of in the conceptual stages right now."

EPIC Companies of West Fargo, meanwhile, put one of its major Moorhead projects on hold. It completed Block E on Main Avenue and the Venne mixed-use building on First Avenue but delayed a four-story residential/commercial building on the Red River at Fourth Street and Center Avenue that was to be called Bolig Square.

The $7 million building that will include 30 apartments was supposed to go on a sliver of land west of the U.S. Bank building and across from the Center Mall. But EPIC spokeswoman McKenzy Olson said the city changed plans on road construction, which "threw off some of our parking plans."

EPIC Companies of West Fargo put this downtown Moorhead project on hold because of uncertainty over road construction. This conceptual plan shows what a proposed new multi-use building on the riverfront in downtown Moorhead at the corner of 4th Street and Center Avenue could look like. Photo courtesy of EPIC Companies
EPIC Companies of West Fargo put this downtown Moorhead project on hold because of uncertainty over road construction. This conceptual plan shows what a proposed new multi-use building on the riverfront in downtown Moorhead at the corner of 4th Street and Center Avenue could look like. Photo courtesy of EPIC Companies

"We're still planning on doing it, but with the changes we just decided to wait and see how things turn out before moving forward. It's still in the works," Olson said. "It's a great lot in a prominent spot along the river, but we went ahead with the Venne because we were able to acquire that land and finish it relatively quickly."

Discussions are continuing on the future of the Center Mall. In 2019, Moorhead entered into a pre-development agreement and option to purchase with Roers Development of Fargo. The city hopes Roers can reach agreement with the mall's owner and tenants to revitalize the space.

That might be a ways off.

For now, a drive through downtown Moorhead reveals a noticeable transformation. There is life there, germinating ever so slowly.