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Erik Burgess, Published October 01 2013

City leader says downtown Moorhead needs to find its 'niche'

MOORHEAD – In order to create a vibrant downtown, Moorhead needs to find its “niche” next to a hulking downtown Fargo, get community members involved and find the dollars to complete the vision.

Those were some of the points made during an hourlong, standing-room-only community meeting on Tuesday about the future of downtown Moorhead sponsored by the city at the Rourke Art Gallery Museum.

Matt Maslowski, the city’s new business development and retention services manager, said the city will be setting up a roughly 10-member committee of residents to continue the conversation.

Transforming downtown from sparse to vibrant is something city leaders have sought for at least the last decade, but Maslowski told dozens of city leaders, City Council hopefuls and downtown stakeholders on Tuesday that he’s more interested in looking forward.

“This isn’t about 10 years ago. It’s not about five years ago,” Maslowski said. “For me, it’s about today.”

He said Moorhead “can’t hide” from the fact that downtown Fargo is already a vibrant economic engine. Instead, Moorhead has to look for its “niche.”

“We need to decide: Who do we want to be?” Maslowski said.

For Tania Blanich, the Rourke’s executive director, a vibrant downtown is one that’s walkable, with a “critical mass” of small shops. Several audience members said more green space and more focus on the arts could make Moorhead’s downtown stand out.

One audience member suggested Moorhead look at attracting a big-name store such as Trader Joes to come downtown.

But Dave Anderson, known as “Downtown Dave” for his role in transforming downtown Fargo in the early 2000s, told the room that Moorhead can’t wait for big projects – what he calls “home runs.”

When Fargo started rebuilding its downtown a decade ago, “We dealt with a lot of singles, in the baseball analogy,” Anderson said, meaning they focused on keeping existing small businesses and encouraging them to do more.

Carrie Wintersteen, executive director of Theatre B in downtown Fargo, said she considers herself one of those “singles,” a small project that flourished by taking a risk downtown. The theater now has a $150,000 budget and is outgrowing its space, she said.

There are some problems with downtown Moorhead, though, said Councilwoman Nancy Otto. The community needs to be more invested in keeping downtown pristine, she said.

“So many businesses (downtown) don’t care about their appearance,” she said. “There’s weeds. There’s trash. It’s sad.”

There should also be more events downtown, Otto said, which could help draw college kids to the area. Anderson said maybe the city needs to be more lenient with college students.

“If they park their cars where they shouldn’t, we shouldn’t tow 75 of them,” Anderson said, referring to an incident last winter when dozens of cars near the two campuses were towed after a major snowfall. His comment got some laughs from the crowd.

“We need to embrace those people because they could be our future,” Anderson said.

Paul Gleye, a professor of architecture at North Dakota State University, said one of his classes is working on conceptually redesigning downtown Moorhead along Main and Center avenues.

Having a vision is important, Gleye said.

“Even though our students won’t solve all the problems of downtown Moorhead, at the end of the semester they might have some ideas that inspire people,” he said.

Gleye said when NDSU put 300 architecture students downtown at Renaissance Hall years ago, they weren’t happy to be in a then-vacant area. But that vision brought young people downtown, which eventually helped breed a successful downtown, he said.

“People go where people already are,” Gleye said. “Success breeds success.”

Maslowski said investors and money are needed to realize whatever vision the community comes up with for a downtown Moorhead. He said the city is ready and has plans to move forward.

“This is a new era,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518