FARGO – Fifteen years ago, downtown was a wasteland with empty store fronts and decrepit buildings on their way to becoming more decrepit, Bruce Furness recalled. He was mayor then and nothing his administration did to change the situation worked.

“On a Friday night in Fargo, N.D., you could shoot a cannon down Broadway and not hit anything,” he said recently. “There wouldn’t be a car on the street.”

Now people complain about parking, and property values have nearly doubled since 1999.

The key to the turnaround, Furness said, was the Renaissance Zone, a tax-incentive district the Legislature approved that year at his urging and the urging of other cities.

By year’s end, the zone will expire. Today, the City Commission will consider asking the state to renew it for another five years, the maximum renewal period. There would be some boundary changes, though the focus will remain on downtown.

But given its success, does downtown need the zone anymore compared to other areas in the city?

For Furness, a Renaissance Zone Authority member, and other city officials, the answer is “yes.” They say there are still properties, such as parking lots and industrial facilities, that have not been developed to their full potential.

Downtown focus

By providing five-year property-tax and state income-tax exemptions, the zone has spurred investment. Since 1999, there have been 231 downtown projects worth a total of $116 million, according to a Renaissance Zone Authority report.

In that time, the assessed value of downtown properties grew from $197.4 million to $583.5 million, the report says. That’s an increase of 196 percent. Over the same period, inflation was 38 percent.

Some residents question the exclusive focus on downtown, said Nicole Crutchfield, the city’s planning administrator. But she said the original purpose of the zone law was to revitalize downtowns and that’s still the best use. For example, she said, the law requires all but one of the blocks in the zone to be contiguous.

Fargo gets a maximum of 38 blocks.

Other areas in the city don’t need that many and one block doesn’t do much good when used in isolation, Crutchfield said.

Besides, Furness said, downtown still has many empty lots to build on.

Of downtown’s 165 acres, 68 acres, or 41 percent, are either undeveloped, vacant, used for parking or otherwise underused, the Renaissance Zone Authority report says.

Setting priorities

The authority’s proposed change to the Renaissance Zone’s boundary would add a few blocks east and west, and remove blocks to the south for a total of 35.

The remaining three will be reserved in case there are projects outside the zone that need incentives.

At the core are blocks around Broadway and First Avenue North, which contain both underused lots and historic buildings in need of renovation, said Joe Nigg, a city planner.

A prime example is the block with the Fort Noks building. The R.D. Offutt Co. is considering building its headquarters there, using Fort Noks and the adjacent parking lot.

The new blocks east and west are considered a little lower in priority because there are fewer historic buildings, Nigg said.

An example is the block with MidAmerica Steel, an industrial plant in an otherwise commercial district. The Renaissance Zone Authority report says the best use of the land would be a multistory residential or mixed-use building.

Furness said the authority has talked with MidAmerica over the years and officials there would agree to move if somebody else paid for it.

Risks of growth

Besides encouraging downtown growth, the report says the Renaissance Zone encourages infill development and fights sprawl, a priority in the city’s Go2030 strategic plan.

But by pushing construction on parking lots without requiring developers to provide on-site parking, the city could exacerbate the parking shortage, a risk Crutchfield acknowledges. She said city staff is working on a parking strategy.

The city is proposing a five-level parking ramp on NP Avenue where it now owns a parking lot. It has also hired architects to study other locations for ramps, including adding levels to the Civic Center ramp.

Crutchfield said her staff also pays attention to gentrification trends around the nation. It’s not yet a concern here, she said, but as property values go up, it’ll be important to ensure housing stays affordable for young working professionals.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts