Cover Story
Allen Fredrickson/Reuters/Newscom

Fargo: No longer Far-gone

Cities | Fargo, N.D., is a suddenly popular place to live for students, immigrants, and young families

FARGO—Jets swoop onto the runways of Hector International Airport in Fargo, N.D., which now has nonstop flights to Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tampa, and eight other major cities. Look beyond the terminal and you’ll see a rectangular, sand-colored brick edifice standing sentry over the runways—the old Fargo terminal, retired in 1986 and converted into office space. On the upper floor, employees of Myriad Mobile play pool, drink beer, and build mobile applications for corporate clients. During conference room meetings they sometimes watch planes land outside.

Myriad’s 24-year-old CEO, Jake Joraanstad, bounces from conversation to conversation, introducing me to teams of app developers sitting around monitors with Pepsi, water, and backpacks. “I just hired someone like 10 minutes ago,” he says, rapidly explaining growth plans. Myriad has over 30 employees, and has created over 150 apps, including Winter Survival Kit, an emergency app for winter driving that won a White House award. Another app “basically takes your iPhone and makes it a dashboard for a Bobcat,” Joraanstad says.

Reddish-blond hair reflects Joraanstad’s Norwegian heritage, common in North Dakota. He co-founded Myriad while studying computer engineering at North Dakota State University. He would have dropped out of school to focus on the company, but his mother, who was paying tuition, protested. “The last semester I had an A and two D’s,” he laughs. “What’s the reason to go to school if you can already create a job for yourself before you’re done?”

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The booming economy of Fargo is creating lots of new jobs these days and attracting many young people, including Joraanstad’s younger brother, Nathan, a junior at NDSU who works part time at Myriad. Half of Fargo’s residents are under 30. The city is a smaller and colder version of Houston, and North Dakota has become the second biggest oil-pumping state behind Texas: Both are key to transforming the United States into the world’s largest oil producer. 

Demographers a decade or two ago thought Fargo was dying, and many Americans east and west took notice of it only as the stereotypically dull place portrayed in the Coen brothers movie, Fargo. But the drilling technology known as fracking has underpinned a renewal that includes high-tech centers, and North Dakota now has the fastest growing population and economy in the nation. With an unemployment rate of just 2.3 percent, Fargo is a community of hard work, grand opportunity, bulging churches, and packed homeless shelters.

IT'S A LATE FRIDAY afternoon on Broadway, a street populated with art shops, an FM radio studio, restaurants, bars, and an 88-year-old film theater. The city has renovated the road as part of a plan to revitalize downtown. One man skateboards up the sidewalk. Others chain their bikes to lampposts and fire hydrants. Next to downtown’s historic railroad tracks, a cashier with a blond goatee tends the Antiques at Broadway sales desk. Leon Melaas, 26, lives with two roommates in a downtown apartment loft. He moved to the city a few years ago to “escape” from a small North Dakota town called Maddock. Now he sells jewelry and records.

At a nearby American Legion hall, a 23-year-old tends bar. “At least a couple nights a week I come to the downtown area,” says Logan Becker, who moved to Fargo in 2012. Becker is a native of Valley City, N.D., so Fargo is bigger than he’s used to, but it “still has that small-town feel.” The city is attracting the cashier, the bartender, and workers at Microsoft (it now has a major work campus in town) and the world headquarters of Bobcat Co.

Dave Reid, 27, closed a struggling construction business in Tennessee, moved to Fargo, and now manages projects for a high-end builder, Radiant Homes. Since he moved two years ago, construction and remodeling have “gone nuts,” he said: “On our backlog of projects is more than we can physically take on right now.” Downtown, where new $500,000 condos mingle with old apartments, his company is helping convert an old laundry building into an expensive private home with a rooftop bar and fire pit.

The railroad tracks symbolize Fargo’s early growth: Settlers wedged the town against the Red River, a snake that slithers lazily from south to north and forms North Dakota’s border with Minnesota. (The Red River is actually green.) Today the tracks still carry cargo trains into downtown, and 18-wheelers barrel along Main Street, where warehouses and businesses sell furniture, cabinets, signs, forklifts, backhoes, trucks, and huge steel tanks. Occasionally a picture or glass object falls to the floor of a local antique shop as trains clatter by.


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