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Erik Burgess, Published August 17 2013

VIDEO: Downtown's darling: Restored Hotel Donaldson celebrates 10 years

Ten years ago, downtown Fargo was more bleak than boutique. There were rooms rented by the hour, panhandlers aplenty and blighted buildings lined Broadway.

On the corner of Broadway and First Avenue North, a once-grand lodge built in the late 1800s had been converted into a workman’s hotel with communal bathrooms and tiny rooms.

It was called the Hotel Donaldson, and it was there that Karen Stoker planted the seed for what the HoDo became: the only AAA-rated Four Diamond restaurant in North Dakota, a widely reviewed and acclaimed establishment that opened 10 years ago this month and has been a cultural haven in Fargo ever since.

While the HoDo seems like a pillar of downtown now, there were skeptics a decade ago who thought investing

millions in the blighted downtown was foolish, that no one would eat fine food and stay at a boutique hotel in Fargo.

“I think there were a lot of eyebrows that were raised,” said Dave Anderson, or “Downtown Dave,” president of the Downtown Community Partnership in the early 2000s.

Stoker was not the first person to invest in downtown Fargo in the early 2000s, but she was the first person to invest big.

Hers was the first Renaissance Zone project to put more than $1 million into renovations, and city officials and even her competitors today say she offered an experience never before seen in the area, combining a boutique hotel, fine dining and a bar, all plastered with local art and put to the tune of local music.

In an interview last week, Stoker said investing in downtown at that time felt right.

“I just believed that more was going to come,” she said. “It’s the community we are. We’re going to flood, and everybody’s going to throw sandbags. Everybody pitches in.

“Nobody wants to have a big hole in the middle of their community. I just believed. My vision was that we would have a vibrant, wonderful, great place to live.”

The HoDo this month and next is hosting several events in honor of the 10th anniversary: serving a menu of fan favorites, holding a Farmer’s Market on Aug. 31 and bringing back the original executive chef for a special dinner

Sept. 5.

Ten years later, Stoker has accomplished her goal, said Tony Nasello, owner of Sarello’s in Moorhead.

“We don’t have to go to Minneapolis. We don’t have to go to Chicago. We can have our special occasion celebrated right here in town because of a destination like the Hotel Donaldson,” Nasello said. “She’s created that oasis for people as an option.”

‘I was a believer’

As a young girl growing up in the small town of Clearbrook, Minn., downtown Fargo made an impression on Stoker. It was where she stepped onto her first escalator and rode her first elevator, both big deals for a beekeeper’s daughter.

But by the time she returned to Fargo to attend North Dakota State University, downtown had lost much of its sheen. After finishing college, then spending 10 years at Great Plains Software – which was later acquired by Microsoft – Stoker said she had a “midlife awakening.”

“I was longing and yearning for something, and downtown Fargo was a special place as a kid when I grew up,” she said.

When the Renaissance Zone program started in 2000, Stoker saw her opportunity to make downtown special again. She would buy the Hotel Donaldson – Stoker then referred to it lovingly as “the Don” – and invest $7 million into the building. According to the project application, that was more than 10 times more than anyone had invested in a Renaissance Zone project so far.

“It was a huge investment and to have somebody come along and have the confidence and the vision to do that, you think that makes you feel good? It was huge for the program,” said Bob Stein, a retired senior planner in Fargo.

Although she had invested far more than anyone before her, there were other factors that perhaps made Stoker’s decision easier, Stein said.

The city started a three-year renovation of the Broadway corridor in 2002, removing triangular metal awnings from the 1970s and making room for on-street parking, and then-Mayor Bruce Furness was committed to revitalizing downtown, Stein said.

And Stoker can rattle off a list of other businesses that were there before her: Monte’s, Juano’s, Zandbroz and Royal Jewelers.

“There were believers here before me,” she said, “and I definitely was a believer.”

While there were other eateries and bars downtown, Stein and others argued that Stoker was the first to offer “the complete experience.”

Monte’s, for example, served great food, but above the eatery was low-income housing, Stein said. Above the HoDo is a boutique hotel with only 17 rooms, each one based on the work of a different local artist, an idea that was new to Fargo-Moorhead, Stein said.

“I think it gave other downtown developers a little bit more confidence in going forward and doing (something big and unique),” he said.

So much about the HoDo had never been attempted here, Anderson said: the Sky Prairie rooftop, the limited number of rooms, the locally grown food. It could’ve easily gone south, he said. But it didn’t.

“If you follow the vision to the end, then it doesn’t seem so risky,” Anderson said. “Her rates are probably a good deal higher than a night at the Radisson, but my gosh, it’s not the Radisson.”

ND not a ‘wasteland’

A year after the HoDo opened, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, originally in Fargo for a story on Microsoft, did perhaps the first piece on the revitalization of downtown and the HoDo. The headline relied on an old trope: “Fargo hip? You betcha.”

Glowing reviews from National Geographic Traveler, USA Today and others would follow, but Stoker said people from big cities who are astonished that a place like the HoDo exists in Fargo are nothing but “geographic bigots.”

“Because any community of any size has creative people,” she said.

But with all the press, the HoDo has helped fight the bad stereotypes about life in North Dakota, said Eric Watson, executive chef and co-owner of Mezzaluna. The state and its largest city were seen as a “culinary wasteland,” he said.

“I definitely think they (the HoDo) were the first place to really visibly contradict that sort of old-school image of the bland, brown plate, meat and potatoes,” Watson said.

Watson also gives credit to places like Monte’s and Sarello’s, which were in downtown Fargo-Moorhead before the HoDo, but the HoDo, he said, took it to a new level.

Andrea Baumgardner, the HoDo’s original executive chef, was a pioneer in the farm-to-table movement in Fargo, Watson said. They served bison and walleye cakes and a wild rice burger, all part of Stoker’s mission to keep it local.

“Monte’s was the one that showed us the way. They were real pioneers and risk-takers,” Anderson said. “But what the HoDo did, and Karen’s choice for her first chef, really set it apart from the typical restaurant in the Midwest.”

Stoker admits there was some risk in opening a fine dining eatery in Fargo-Moorhead, and the restaurant had “some pretty quiet nights” at first. But she knew that more development would come.

That early tenacity at the HoDo inspired Watson.

“Envious isn’t the right word, but it definitely caught my attention and made me want to work a little harder to do good things in the culinary community here,” he said.

‘It’s a great honor'

Another thing that sets the HoDo apart is its commitment to community service, Anderson said, pointing to the Bras and Bros on Broadway cancer fundraisers.

“They don’t just sponsor things and put their name on events,” Anderson said. “They put the events all over their building.”

The HoDo has some challenges, and the greatest of them, Stoker said, is countering the notion that you have to be dressed up and affluent to enjoy the HoDo.

Stoker calls it the hotel’s “biggest misnomer,” and insists they’re as much blue jeans and T-shirt as they are suit and tie, and that they want to make good food and art accessible.

“I don’t know anything about art or wine or food, but I know that I like it, and you can learn about it,” Stoker said.

Sitting in the HoDo lounge Wednesday afternoon, Stoker could hardly keep a smile off her face.

As part of the 10-year celebration, she cleared out all 17 rooms for an open house and invited the artists back to spend a free night in the room based on their art. The artists had the same opportunity when the HoDo first opened in August 2003.

Many of the artists were back in town for the event, although a couple of them have died in the past 10 years, Stoker said.

Sitting in what’s known as the “big dog room,” a suite with a vaulted ceiling, two bathrooms and a hot tub, Minot-based painter Walter Piehl, 71, said it’s a surreal experience to be in a room based on his old paintings, many of them colorful depictions of the cowboy lifestyle.

On Wednesday, Piehl wore a vibrant red Hawaiian-style shirt, a Texas-sized belt buckle, a wide-brimmed straw cap and an even wider smile beneath his long, white mustache.

“It makes you feel like a real artist,” he said.

The HoDo has brought national prominence to local artists, Piehl says, and he still benefits from hotel guests who stay in his room and then call to ask about his art. Piehl said the HoDo, which owns about 10 of his pieces, is by far his best patron.

“Anybody that has work in here looks at it as a great feather in your hat,” Piehl said. “To be selected (to have a room) and to be invited to come back and show again and to be part of a celebration like this – it’s a great honor.”

A concept that seems so popular nowadays – to use local ingredients and celebrate local artists – really wasn’t happening here, at least until the HoDo and Karen Stoker.

“It’s the right thing to do business with your neighbors and know your neighbors,” Stoker said. “What we had the opportunity to do here at the hotel is showcase our community. I always say it’s really wonderful to have so much of our community’s ‘cool’ under one roof.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518