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Charly Haley, Forum News Service, Published April 11 2014

Fargo developer Burgum praises Grand Forks' energy, opportunities

GRAND FORKS - "Vibrant downtowns create smart, healthy cities,” Doug Burgum, a downtown Fargo developer, told an audience full of downtown Grand Forks advocates Thursday at the Empire Arts Center.

It’s a message he repeated throughout his presentation as he encouraged downtown initiatives ranging from bike- and car-share programs to greater use of the Red River.

He highlighted some of downtown Fargo’s achievements — hotels such as the Hotel Donaldson and the Radisson, university buildings, a mix of retail and dining options, housing, a festival held in an alley and a library — and he offered praise for downtown Grand Forks’ achievements as well.

His audience included business owners, city and community leaders, UND students and many others were gathered for Downtown Day, a creation of the Grand Forks Downtown Development Association.

Burgum is the founder of Kilbourne Group, which has bought and revitalized several downtown Fargo buildings. He’s also proposing a $125 million, 23-story skyscraper there, which would be the state’s tallest building.

Walkable, eclectic

Downtown Grand Forks has many strengths, according to Burgum.

“I applaud Central High School,” he said, because students can walk from the high school to other places downtown, and walkability is a key factor in a strong downtown. “(Central High) is an asset and you ought to fight to keep it and wear it proudly.”

Burgum also praised the Grand Forks County office building and its parking ramp for its efficient use of space, which he said is another important feature of strong downtowns.

And he referred to a photo of musicians playing on the sidewalk outside of Rhombus Guys restaurant, saying people should encourage the “eclecticness” of street musicians and other public arts.

The mind-set for building a vibrant downtown is already prominent in Grand Forks, partly stemming from the history of Grand Forks city and community leaders choosing to rebuild after the flood of 1997, Burgum said.

Prior to his speech, Mayor Mike Brown and City Council President Hal Gershman spoke, recognizing the history of downtown and praising the renewed energy recently brought by the DDA.

National trend

Burgum followed up with some ideas on how Grand Forks could utilize this energy.

Grand Forks and Fargo aren’t the only cities with a downtown in need of revitalization, he said.

Nationwide, there are cities where people are tired of commuting from suburbs, “the periphery,” and want to move back to “the core,” that is downtown, he said.

When people are looking to move or visit a city, they often seek an interesting downtown for local color — entertainment or shopping options they may not find anywhere else, Burgum said.

As he went through many examples of how downtowns can become livelier, he said it boils down to a strong economy, health and workforce.

Downtown library

In the question-and-answer period after Burgum’s speech, an audience member asked for more details on Fargo’s experience opening a downtown library citing the controversy over the location of Grand Forks’ proposed new library.

Burgum said Fargo also has a “satellite library” away from downtown, but libraries bring traffic and people downtown, which can in turn boost business downtown. Fargo City Commissioner Mike Williams also spoke up in answer to the question, saying that downtown Fargo’s relatively new library stays very busy.

Another audience member asked about female business leaders’ role in developing downtown noting that all of Thursday’s presenters were men.

Burgum said that women have been vital to the development of downtown Fargo, as they likely will be for Grand Forks.

Downtown Grand Forks is full of opportunities, but ultimately, the development has to be a choice, he said.

“Everything is here, but growth is a choice,” he said.