FARGO, N.D. — Growing up here, Greg Tehven heard all the jokes.
“When I’d tell people I was from Fargo, I would get laughed at. It was almost as if other cities bullied us,” said Tehven, 29, a self-appointed community booster and co-founder of Emerging Prairie, a network of local entrepreneurs and startups.
It was bad enough when the movie “Fargo” came out two decades ago. Now it’s back as a TV show, and this time, the gap between the Fargo on screen — the one with the woodchipper — and the city that surrounds him is galling.
Tehven’s Fargo is the five-block radius of downtown; a vibrant community of artists, tech entrepreneurs, college kids and possibilities. Once hollowed out, the downtown is now crowded with coffee shops, restaurants and quirky shops that draw in crowds of strolling pedestrians and cyclists.
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Tehven’s Fargo is one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities.
Newcomers are pouring into the Fargo-Moorhead region, pushing its borders outward, filling the schools to capacity, but still not filling all its 5,700 current job vacancies.
Neighboring West Fargo has built so many new schools, they hold contests to come up with names. Fargo itself, population 109,000, now sprawls across 48 square miles, a footprint the size of Boston.
“You feel like you died and went to heaven,” said James Gartin, president of the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corp. — the man in charge of encouraging economic growth in a place now ranked as the best place in America to find a job, the country’s third-safest community and its fourth-fastest growing metro region.
“It’s electric,” Gartin said. “It’s just an incredible time to be in this market. Not only with the business growth, but we have this incredible entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
These are boom times for all of North Dakota, as western oil fields bring in money and jobs at a staggering rate. The unemployment rate is near 2 percent and there’s so much revenue rolling in, the Legislature has cut taxes by $2.4 billion since 2009, yet the state still has a $500 million surplus.
The Bakken oil fields are 400 miles northwest of here, and while the region benefits from the oil boom, most of its prosperity is coming from within. The largest employers in town are the health-care companies, the region’s many universities, the banks and the tech companies, led by Microsoft.
Beyond the five-block core of downtown, Fargo levels out into a sprawl of neighborhoods and businesses, with more going up every day; 2,700 new housing permits have been issued this year.
Plenty of towns talk about revitalizing their downtowns. Fargo is actually doing it, thanks to the happy combination of a good economy, a thriving business climate and motivated residents.
“We’re building the kind of city we want to live in,” Tehven said.
The rebirth of Fargo started with one building, and one man determined to save it.
When Doug Burgum sold his Great Plains Software to Microsoft more than a decade ago, he turned his time and resources to invest in the neglected downtown.
He started with a dilapidated old school-supply building that was about to be razed for a parking lot. In 2000, the city paid Burgum $100,000 to take it off its hands.
Burgum refurbished the building and donated it to North Dakota State University. Today, it’s Renaissance Hall and houses the university’s architecture department.
Other developers stepped forward to renovate other buildings.
“People ask, ‘What’s left to do?’ ” Burgum said. “I tell them we’re just getting started.”
The downtown is an attractive city center with amenities that can make the difference in attracting new businesses and workers.
“Value what makes your community distinctive. Don’t try to look like everyone else,” said Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.
The two largest demographic groups in America today are the baby boomers and the millennials, born between the 1980s and 2000s.
Both groups, Fisher said, are being drawn to downtown living, often for the same reasons — they want the entertainment, shops and amenities you can walk to, unlike the sidewalk-free sprawl of the suburbs.
Fargo is a city of networkers. One person will notice that the downtown alleys could use some sprucing up, and in short order Alley Fair gets created, with volunteers fanning out over town to fill vacant alleys with art, plants and light. It can feel like the city has a downtown-improvement flash mob.
“Fargo is filled with really talented, creative, hardworking people that care,” Tehven said. “And we’re having the time of our lives.”