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Published October 02 2013

Forum editorial: Moorhead must seek new vision

If Moorhead leaders are serious about a “new era,” among the first things they need to do is stop blaming booming Fargo for their city’s woes. If Moorhead is to remake itself in order to find a “niche” in the metro, the reality of Fargo must be viewed as integral to that vision. Building on Fargo’s success, as West Fargo has so cleverly done, must be a factor in the formula for Moorhead’s renaissance.

Moorhead’s unique strengths are obvious:

• It’s a genuine college town, with three major thriving institutions of higher learning. The character of vast swaths of the city is defined by the campuses, especially the neighborhoods that host Minnesota State University Moorhead and Concordia College. The city must rebuild its reputation as a student-friendly place.

• The city boasts three world-class arts and history attractions: The Rourke Art Gallery and Museum, the Hjemkomst Heritage Center, and the Bluestem Center for the Arts. Each on its own is a jewel in the city’s cultural crown. Taken together they represent a kind of critical mass of arts diversity that few small cities ever achieve. Yet, in recent years the city’s leadership has treated them as burdens and headaches.

Attitudes are pivotal in municipal success or failure. Longtime City Council member Nancy Otto got to the heart of it during a meeting this week. “So many businesses (downtown) don’t care about their appearance,” she said. “There are weeds. There’s trash. It’s sad.”

It’s more than sad. Without enthusiasm and pride from the people who own and/or manage property in the city, public policy aimed at rejuvenation will founder. A new vision cannot come to nuts-and-bolts fruition if the private sector is not fully on board.

In fairness, Moorhead development and investment have been handicapped by a state tax and regulatory climate that makes doing business across the Red River in Fargo more attractive. But those things are not going to change, so city leaders must work up strategies to advance, despite growth-stifling mandates from St. Paul.

Like Fargo, Moorhead made the “urban redevelopment” mistake a generation ago. Fargo’s recovery was speeded by Renaissance Zone legislation that offered incentives for investors to restore and revitalize historic downtown buildings. It worked. Moorhead, which cleared away its once-vibrant downtown retail center, had no similar program. Moorhead has been unable to restore a viable downtown identity.

That identity must be Moorhead’s own, even as the city capitalizes on the growth and vitality of Fargo. Striking a productive balance will require recognition of reality in the metro, visionary planning and cross-river cooperation.

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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.