MOORHEAD — Longtime Moorhead resident Yoke Sim Gunaratne sees economic development as a key to the city's future.

Her friend Diane Wray-Williams said she believes the city that has grown to an estimated 45,000 residents could "very well be the best-kept secret" in the region.

"It's such a caring and giving community with lots of opportunities to help," she said, adding she tells one of her grandsons in middle school that he is "so lucky" to have Moorhead's educational system.

Gunaratne and Wray-Williams were among numerous city residents at the Hjemkomst Center on Tuesday, July 20, as a consulting firm called Stantec, which created the city's downtown plan last year, set up various stations where residents could comment on what they'd like to see in the city's new 20-year comprehensive plan that is under development.

Stantec is looking for strategies to improve the city's various neighborhoods from the northeast side and its business strips along U.S. Highway 10 to the southwest side in the area surrounding the Interstate 94 interchange and farther south.

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The last such plan was done in 2004.

Gunaratne said the city needs industrial, manufacturing and other businesses to provide more jobs so people in Moorhead can work in the city. She also said she would like to see the city retain more of the international and regional students attending Minnesota State University Moorhead, Concordia College and M-State by encouraging them to stay and fill jobs.

"That, I believe, is what we need," she said.

Mayor Shelly Carlson couldn't agree more. She said with the many property tax breaks for businesses and new homes in the city, it's almost on an equal playing field with Fargo and other cities in the area.

She believes there will "really be a boom" after the city completes the railroad underpasses on Southeast Main Avenue next summer and 11th Street in the downtown area in a few years.

"I think we are creating a cool vibe," she said, noting ongoing plans to redevelop the Moorhead Center Mall area.

While the earlier plan focused on downtown, she said, this new plan will help guide city leaders with input from residents on plans for the entire city.

Stantec Vice President David Dixon, a sought-after expert in urban planning and design, said the city needs to prepare for a new era, as many cities across the nation need to adapt to changing demographics and find out what people want.

"What we are trying to do is have a community conversation about that," Dixon said.

Some of his suggestions were walkable neighborhoods, a vibrant downtown and surrounding the colleges with as many activities as possible. He also suggested bringing activities closer to the schools to entice more staff and students.

"Moorhead's time in the sun has come," he said, "but it takes leadership."

Stantec's Beth Elliott, a leader in gaining public input who is helping develop the plan, said the neighborhood meetings and walking tours they held on Tuesday were well-attended.

Since late last year, Elliott said, they have been gathering input from city leaders and others in virtual meetings.

An item that repeatedly popped up, especially from city leaders, was the importance of planning ways to pay for any advancements or strategies to improve neighborhoods.

"How we pay for it is a big issue," she said.

After collecting ideas from residents at the various gatherings, Elliott said, they plan to put together visions and strategies for the neighborhoods and test them out this fall.

Following meetings with city leaders and additional input, she said, they are shooting for the plan to be delivered with final adjustments late next winter or early spring of 2022.