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Dave Olson, Published December 21 2012

Diversion, schools fueling West Fargo’s decade of success

WEST FARGO - When newlyweds Joe and Randi Dombek went house hunting this year, they looked everywhere in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

They wound up buying in West Fargo, and while they’ve been in their home just two months, they’ve already decided it was the right choice.

“We are really happy with the neighborhood, and we’re really happy with the different businesses in the area; they’re close enough to be convenient, but they’re not right in your backyard,” Randi Dombek said.

What is in their backyard, or very nearly, anyway, is the Sheyenne River.

But the Dombeks aren’t worried about a bugaboo that haunts many in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

“We’ve got the best of both worlds,” Randi Dombek said. “The beauty of it (the river), but we don’t have to worry about the flooding.”

That’s because West Fargo is home to the Sheyenne Diversion, an engineering project that kept the community stress-free at times when Fargo and Moorhead scrambled to build dikes to protect homes.

West Fargo officials say the diversion was a major reason the city grew nearly 73 percent between 2000 and 2010, from 14,940 residents to 25,830.

The growth has continued in the years since. As of 2011, the city’s population was estimated at 26,291, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Plus, local data shows that West Fargo has seen a greater share of metro housing growth so far in 2012 than it has over the past five years.

Other factors in the city’s growth include new schools and West Fargo’s efforts to keep things looking good and functioning well, according to Rich Mattern, the city’s mayor.

Mattern said he encounters new West Fargo residents all the time, sometimes on the campus of North Dakota State University in Fargo, where he works.

Young families

“The demographics of West Fargo certainly seem to be skewing to young families,” Mattern said.

“I think that partially is because of the schools being built and there is land around those schools for development,” he added.

New schools include:

• Freedom Elementary, which was full when it opened this fall

• Sheyenne 9th Grade Academy, which is being turned into Sheyenne High School. Ninth and 10th grades will be housed at the school next fall and 11th and 12th grades will be added later.

• Liberty Middle School is planned to open in fall 2013.

Also, the West Fargo School Board has authorized the construction of an elementary school about a half mile east of Sheyenne 9th Grade Academy.

In addition to schools, Mattern said the Sheyenne Diversion’s role in West Fargo’s success cannot be overstated.

“We weathered these flooding years, and the diversion worked well. I think that plays a big, big role in our growth,” he said.

The Dombeks found a home not far from where they work in West Fargo, and Mattern said employment opportunities also play a role in the city’s appeal.

“You look at Sanford Health, where they’re building right by West Fargo,” he said. “Some of those people may be looking ahead to coming here.”

Permit values soar

It’s clear that people – and businesses – are putting down roots in West Fargo.

With a population of about 26,000, West Fargo has far fewer people than either Fargo (roughly 107,000), or Moorhead, (approximately 39,000), but it has seen an outsized portion of the metro area’s housing starts so far this year.

Through the third quarter of 2012, about 44 percent of all housing starts in the Fargo-Moorhead area occurred in West Fargo, according to figures from the Homebuilders Association of Fargo Moorhead.

That’s a higher share of the housing starts than it has averaged during the same time period in recent years. West Fargo represented about 28 percent of all home starts in the area over the last five years during the first three quarters, according to the association’s report. Over the past 20 years, West Fargo housing starts were about 32 percent of home starts in the Fargo-Moorhead area in the first nine months.

So far in 2012, housing and commercial building permit values total nearly $196 million – the highest ever – and that’s before a multi-million dollar, 330-unit apartment complex going in near Veterans Boulevard is figured in, said Mark Housh, the city’s building inspector.

Newcomers to West Fargo’s business community include Costco, which opened a store this fall, and Blarney Stone Pub, which has a store in Bismarck and plans to open a West Fargo site next year.

The city’s robust growth over the past decade was one reason City Administrator Jim Brownlee took a job with the city in 2004, a year that saw 415 single-family home starts in West Fargo.

The city had 369 single-family home starts this year.

“West Fargo was just growing like crazy, and I knew it would be a fun job to take,” said Brownlee, who believes continued improvements, like the connecting of Veterans Boulevard to Interstate 94 in 2009, will enhance the city’s appeal even more.

“I think we have a reputation for good schools. I think we have a reputation as a good city,” Brownlee said.

Building success is like fitting pieces of a puzzle together, according to Mattern.

“How you do things like sanitation and street cleaning fit into the puzzle, and I think the puzzle is working very well,” he said.

“The growth has been phenomenal,” he added. “When you talk to department heads, they seem to think the growth will continue at least through next year.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555

Local housing starts

Total number of new housing units that began construction in the four metro cities through the first nine months of 2012:

• Fargo: 325

• West Fargo: 322

• Moorhead: 73

• Dilworth: 12

Source: Home Builders Association of Fargo-Moorhead