Coens’ Wood Chipper Draws Crowds as Fargo Laments Image

October 24, 2014

By Jennifer Oldham 

(Bloomberg) -- Jason Gireto donned a plaid hunting cap to pose for the requisite souvenir: a photo with colleagues shoving a white-socked mannequin leg into the wood chipper used in the 1996 Academy Award-winning dark comedy “Fargo.” 

Yet even as hundreds of visitors a year flock to the machine made famous in a vivid bit of movie mayhem, local leaders are working to update the perception of Fargo, the place. The world should know the North Dakota city as a diversified engine of regional growth -- not the peculiar locale depicted in the film by the Coen brothers and an FX television series, they say. 

“Could a city have a worse brand?” said Greg Tehven, co- founder of Emerging Prairie, a company that connects entrepreneurs. 

In fact, Fargo is riding the largest oil boom in the state’s history and an expanding technology industry led by Microsoft Corp.’s third-largest campus. Even with the price of Bakken crude near its lowest level in almost two years, the city is benefiting from a state economy that has outpaced all others since 2009, with the fastest growth in personal income, tax revenue, jobs and home prices, according to Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States data. 

The metro region, which includes West Fargo and Moorhead, Minnesota, across the Red River, is the fourth fastest-growing in the U.S. Fargo, joining bigger metropolises in the revival of their downtowns, posted the nation’s second-lowest unemployment rate among cities, at 2.4 percent in August. 

POPULATION GROWTH 

To keep pace with a 20 percent increase in population since 2000 to 113,658, Fargo will start construction in 2015 on a $103 million expansion of its water-treatment plant and a new $21 million city hall. Bus ridership increased almost threefold in the last decade to an expected 2.2 million this year. 

West Fargo more than doubled its population since 2000 to 31,000 and its physical size to 10 square miles. To cope with a 63.5 percent increase in enrollment in 10 years to 9,074, the West Fargo Public Schools is finishing construction of its eighth new school in the period. 

“It’s a complete turnaround from where we were 10 or 12 years ago,” said Doug Burgum, who helped make Fargo a technology center by selling his company, Great Plains Software Inc., to Microsoft in 2001 for $1.1 billion. The effort to rebrand the region is centered in its downtown, where the appraised value of real estate almost doubled from 2003 to 2013 to a total of $555 million. 

RESTAURANT OPENINGS 

Millenials and families moved into new or refurbished luxury lofts and apartments, attracting 10 new restaurants in the past year and prompting businesses to relocate to the city center. A main street lined with century-old brick buildings, including a redeveloped cultural zone, bisects a downtown that fills a 100-block area. 

Outside that district sprawl strip malls, warehouses and fast-food chains. Fargo’s identity crisis is mirrored in prairie towns throughout North Dakota swept up by the oil boom, forcing them to evolve from places where everyone knew each other to urban centers with broader appeal. 

“It’s a search for identity in a culture with a Norwegian, Scandinavian influence,” said Angela Smith, an assistant professor of history at North Dakota State University and sponsor of the “Fargo History Project.” “People want to be nice, they want to stay below the radar and not stand out. They don’t like to raise a ruckus about anything.” 

‘ALWAYS WARM’ 

To help establish a new identity, the region’s visitors’ center hired North Star Destination Strategies, a Nashville, Tennessee-based marketing company to interview residents and tourists about what they think of the community, said Charley Johnson, president of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention & Visitor’s Bureau. The research is part of a $75,000 campaign to invent a new slogan for its website. The current motto: “Always Warm!” 

“We haven’t run away from the movie or TV series, but it isn’t going to be part of our marketing effort,” he said. Those who do visit can come away surprised. 

“There’s more nightlife, it’s different from what I expected,” said Gireto, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, consultant, after his turn at the wood chipper. “I thought it would be a classic, small, Midwest town.” 

Visitors helped fill 69 percent of hotel rooms this year through August, even as the supply increased by 7.4 percent. The metro area expects to rack up $100 million in hotel room revenue this year for the first time. 

DOWNTOWN REVIVAL 

Like downtowns in Denver, San Diego and Nashville, Fargo’s resurgence is due in part to a preference by millennials to live closer to where they work. 

“It’s fun to be in a place that’s developing; everything is changing all the time,” said Prasad Sawardeker, 36, an orthopedic surgeon who chose a job in Fargo over opportunities in Pittsburgh and Miami and lives in a loft downtown. “It’s just the beginning.” 

North Dakota State University graduate Jake Joraanstad stayed put. He invented mobile applications in his dorm room, leading to the creation of app-development company Myriad Mobile, and relocated his 60 employees downtown in September from a space near Hector International Airport, where traffic is up 12 percent.

“Our team drove downtown almost every day to get food or after work,” he said. “A lot of their friends live downtown.” 

Joraanstad is one of 8,000 working in the region’s burgeoning tech industry. On Microsoft’s campus, the number of employees and contract workers doubled to 1,710 in the past 13 years. 

PITCHING GUERNSEY 

Burgum, the tech entrepreneur, has attracted $58 million to restore downtown buildings through his redevelopment company, Kilbourne Group. He’s targeting an additional 67 opportunities in the next five years. 

In the meantime, event planner Tehven travels to cities from St Peter Port, the capital of the island of Guernsey off the coast of France, to Denver to talk up Fargo. 

“I think about the movie Casablanca, it gives us this insight into romance and love -- it makes me want to go there, or Las Vegas, it’s portrayed in countless films about adventure,” Tehven said at a TedX event in St Peter Port, which is struggling with economic uncertainty. “The Coen brothers were wrong -- it isn’t a place of bareness, it isn’t a place of cold.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jennifer Oldham in Denver at +1-303-318-9512 or joldham1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: James Hertling at +44-20-3525-9330 or jhertling@bloomberg.net