We miss the days of being able to wander carefree in Fargo’s bustling city center. Some recall fondly the cafe at Woolworth’s and the popcorn vendors. Downtown is well on its way to regaining that vibrancy.
Or it was.
Sadly, downtown Fargo is at risk of losing its luster because of its failure so far to deal with the growing nuisance of panhandlers, drunks and brawlers.
That message was delivered loud and clear last week to the Fargo City Commission. Downtown business leaders and residents pleaded with city officials to solve a problem in the city’s core that has markedly deteriorated in recent months.
Disruptive, bothersome and even threatening behavior by some who loiter downtown has the potential to derail all of the progress the city and businesses have made in turning the district into a magnet for those seeking unique shopping, entertainment and residential experiences.
The situation is simply unacceptable; it requires immediate and decisive action. Millions of dollars have been invested downtown in recent years, transforming it into a beacon for the metro area. But some business owners are so frustrated that they’re considering relocating if conditions don’t improve.
The public safety alarms are sounding even as downtown is months away from completion of new landmark projects on Broadway, including the Block 9 tower and the Mercantile Building. Those distinctive buildings, and renovation of the stately Black Building, will recapture the flavor of downtown’s past in its latest renaissance.
Let’s not miss the opportunity.
The problem won’t be easy to fix and will take a holistic approach. Any solution will in no small measure require better ways of dealing with the intractable problem of homelessness.
Downtown is a magnet for the homeless, whose numbers hover around 1,000 on any given day in Fargo and whose behaviors often include substance abuse and the behavioral problems that go along with it.
Solving the societal problem of homelessness will take years and a level of commitment at the national, state and federal levels that we’ve yet to realize. Fortunately, however, we can make a major difference in a matter of months.
City officials have been exploring a day center for the homeless. Such a venue would prevent loitering and also could provide a way to engage patrons, who could be referred to services to help them address behavioral and substance abuse problems that are at the root of their homelessness.
The city and its partners should move swiftly to open a drop-in center as a major first step in addressing the problem. Done effectively, such an effort should quickly show results.
In tandem, police simply have to step up their presence and focus on downtown. For years city leaders have talked about opening a station downtown — a step that is even more crucial now that police headquarters have moved out of the city core.
The public safety problems downtown should be a priority of the new police chief, David Zibolski, who will be on board in a few weeks. The downtown concerns present an early opportunity for the new chief to demonstrate his leadership.
Meanwhile, Fargo City Commissioners should give the chief and others working to solve the difficult downtown public safety problems, which also include planners and public health officials, the full support they need.
Keeping downtown safe and inviting for residents and visitors is vital. Fargo can’t allow these problems to persist and fester. Downtown is a gem we can’t afford to see tarnished.