McFeely: In bombshell move, Moorhead wants to sell city hall and adjacent property to Roers Development

Fargo developer wants to redevelop property 'to bring new life to downtown'

092419.N.FF.MCFEELYCOLUMNTHREE.jpg Mike McFeely photo
The Moorhead City Hall, seen here in the background, is part of the Center Mall in downtown Moorhead. Mike McFeely / The Forum

Moorhead — The city government here wants to sell its city hall and property it owns in and adjacent to the Moorhead Center Mall to a Fargo developer.

The Moorhead City Council voted to enter into a pre-development agreement and option to purchase with Roers Development of Fargo at its night meeting Monday, Sept. 23.

The city council dropped the bombshell after it emerged from a closed executive session at the end of a nearly four-hour meeting.

When it emerged, Roers Development chief executive officer Jim Roers and daughter Shannon Roers Jones took seats in the council chamber as City Manager Chris Volkers announced the news.

"This is the beginning of some really great things for the city of Moorhead," said council member Deb White.


The city hopes Roers can redevelop the property to revitalize its downtown area, which has struggled to attract businesses and residents for decades. Moorhead razed much of its historic downtown in the 1970s to build the Center Mall in the name of urban redevelopment.

Monday night's decision is not without controversy. The mall's owner and its general manager believe such a move would cripple the mall's ability to do business, especially given the odd ownership arrangement the Center Mall is under. They believe the city has not conducted its dealings with Roers in a transparent manner.

At a recent city council meeting, mall owner Patrick Vesey begged for transparency. At Monday night's meeting, mall general manager Andrew Nielsen said the city dealing in private meetings with Roers violated the council's promise to make downtown redevelopment a citizen-driven process.

"In short, people feel like there is no point in conducting the surveys or collecting the data points if the city is working with one developer on its own," Nielsen told the council.

But his was a solitary voice as the council meeting ended in a jubilant manner. Council members, Mayor Johnathan Judd and City Manager Volkers believe Roers getting heavily involved in redeveloping Moorhead's downtown is a game-changer.

Roers has agreed to help Moorhead locate a site for a new city hall and either build or retrofit an existing building to suit the city's needs.

Shannon Roers Jones said there has been some talk of a science museum being located on the Center Mall property, but that is premature. She said it is only one of many possibilities for the property.

"We are excited to work on a redevelopment strategy to bring new life to downtown," Jim Roers said. "We hope we can bring that life back to your community and move your city forward."


The project will be a challenge.

The Center Mall is unique in that it is a condominium association, where some businesses own their space and others lease from owners. The city actually owns the hallways inside the mall, while spaces in which businesses are located are the property of individual business owners.

"We have no intention of doing a takeover or buyouts," Jim Roers said. "We look forward to partnering with everyone to make this work."

The city views the agreement as a public-private partnership. The pre-development agreement provides Roers representation of city-owned property in order to explore potential partnerships that may lead to comprehensive redevelopment of city hall and related city-owned property, according to a summary of the agreement.

The city also believes selling its property to Roers could be a cost-saving measure for taxpayers. The summary said that as of 2016, city hall had $1.6 million worth of "red-rated" deficiencies. The figure did not include ongoing maintenance, improvement costs or deficiencies not yet identified in the building. The city says the "red-rated" deficiency costs would rise to $3.1 million by 2026.

Moorhead City Hall and the Center Mall were built in the early 1970s as part of an ambitious urban renewal project by the city. It came at a time when traditional downtown areas were dying in favor of large shopping malls on the outskirts of cities, much like West Acres shopping center in Fargo. The city demolished about 96 acres of businesses and homes to make way for the Center Mall.

But the mall has struggled in recent decades as Moorhead has watched Fargo's nearby downtown become revitalized by developers like the Doug Burgum-owned Kilbourne Group. Moorhead has for years tried to come up with plans to attract more downtown businesses and return to a more traditional downtown.

Moorhead city leaders view this as a huge opportunity to move their downtown forward.


"We have received input on our downtown plan and we continue to receive input on our downtown plan," Judd said in response to Nielsen's criticism.

But there is reason to expect more criticism from Vesey, Nielsen and perhaps some Center Mall business owners. It's clear they feel left out of the process.

At the city council meeting Sept. 9, Vesey went before the council and hinted it might be violating a state statute by doing some business in private.

"We have a significant investment here, we pay a lot of taxes. I want to make sure our investment is protected as well," Vesey said. "I want to make sure the commission understands we want full transparency and that's all we ask."

PHOTO: Moorhead City Hall
Moorhead's City Hall is part of the Moorhead Center Mall. Mike McFeely / The Forum
Forum file photo

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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