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?”
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.
The 2008 housing bust skipped the area. Construction booms: Last year the city issued building permits worth $378 million (a Fargo record), including permits for 1,170 new apartments. “Developers are clamoring to get streets in,” said Jim Gilmour, Fargo’s planning and development director. Workers in winter hats build new homes, add to old ones, replace windows, build fencing, and renovate city parks along the river. They plant young trees in parks and pour cement for new curbs and roads that include bike lanes.
GROWTH HAS BROUGHT SOME PROBLEMS. From 2000 to 2012 the local homeless population tripled, to about 600, with shelters today so full churches have agreed to host overflow homeless crowds during winter. “Without that project in place ... there would be people dying in Fargo,” said Rob Swiers, the executive director of New Life Center, a Christian shelter. He speaks of “people living in cars.”
The Red River overflows its banks regularly, and during a major 2009 flood Fargoans had to “beat back the river,” said Jonas Bundy, a pastor at Bethel Church who moved to town that year and saw kids filling sandbags with shovels. Those sandbags—around 3 million—helped spare the city from major devastation: “It’s an incredible point of pride for our community.” Flooding isn’t great for business, however. City officials hope to secure federal assistance for a $1.8 billion diversion project that would channel floodwaters around town.
Along with the growing population are growing challenges to family values. Last October the City Commission unanimously approved a non-binding LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) anti-discrimination resolution. “Could this have happened 10 years ago in this city? No,” said Tom Freier, executive director of the Fargo-based North Dakota Family Alliance.
The state’s only abortion facility, the Red River Women’s Clinic, is located downtown. The facility’s annual average of about 1,300 abortion procedures dropped to 1,185 last year, perhaps thanks to stricter pro-life legislation North Dakota adopted in 2013.
Falling abortion rates are a hopeful sign for young families attracted by Fargo’s strong economy. Reid, the Radiant Homes builder, is married and has a 1-year-old boy and a baby due in June: He said Fargo has a “great school system” and is a great place to raise kids. Elementary students are packing new schools.
Fargo residents are also proud of the growth of North Dakota State University, which tallied a record high enrollment—nearly 15,000 students—last fall and a sports three-peat: Its NCAA football team has won three national titles in a row in Division I’s Football Championship Subdivision. The biggest football powers are in the Football Bowl Subdivision, but NDSU in championship games has beaten Sam Houston State twice and Towson University once. Students crash university servers in their rush to claim game tickets.
NDSU has a newly renovated cafeteria, pool hall, and eight-lane bowling alley. Freier said some of the new liberal influence in Fargo may be linked to North Dakota State University, which sponsors LGBT events in the region and trumpets the slogan, “Our pride runs campuswide.” (Last fall the school began allowing LGBT students to request a sexually oriented roommate of their choice.)
Enrollment stats at NDSU indicate 6 out of 10 students are from out of state, but 6 out of 10 graduates end up accepting jobs in North Dakota. Churches that hope to reach newcomers include River City Church (RCC), which the Joraanstad brothers attend. RCC is housed downtown in a former brick furniture shop with show windows and thick pillars the landlord claims could support a Sherman tank. The building sits beside the train tracks, and churchgoers occasionally arrive late after getting stuck on the sidewalk behind a train. The kids’ classes meet in a heated garage with a decrepit freight elevator in one corner.
Lead pastor Brett Moser started RCC with a handful of families in 2009, and today more than 400 people attend weekly services. Of those, one-third are college students. The rest are mainly young married couples and kids under 18. “A lot of folks in our church are engineers and architects,” said Moser. Others work for tech companies, schools, or the big hospital downtown, Sanford Health.
Charlie Hogstad, 31, moved to Fargo in 2005 to date and marry a nursing student he loved. Friends at a church small group helped him and his wife, Andrea, work through early marriage problems and move from “being at war with each other to seeing how the gospel can slowly draw us closer together.” His small group also helped a Congolese immigrant family get settled and obtain driver’s licenses.
Today, Hogstad is a co-pastor at RCC and spends cold winter evenings throwing balls in the house with his three young kids. He loves the friendliness of Fargoans and the diversity of newcomers: He calls the city one big suburb with a cute, quaint downtown: “We could leave the doors unlocked at night if we wanted to.”
Low unemployment, low crime, and inexpensive but decent housing make Fargo a surprising resettling ground for international refugees. “There’s no such thing as a ghetto in Fargo,” said Darci Asche, a resettlement supervisor at Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota. The agency coordinated the arrival of 285 refugees in Fargo and West Fargo during fiscal year 2013, mostly from Bhutan, Iraq, and Somalia.
For immigrants accustomed to hot climates, the region’s cold temperatures and 52 inches of snow each winter come as a shock. Hasta Basnet, 28, saw snow for the first time when he arrived in Fargo three years ago. He lives with his wife, parents, and sister in a three-bedroom apartment that is modest but brightly decorated with balloons, colored lights, and artificial flowers. Rent is $765 a month. When I visited, his parents offered a head bow and the Hindu greeting “Namaste!”
Hasta’s father, 81, wore a topi atop his head and red and yellow strings around his wrists—a protection against evil spirits. His mother, 70, wore gold rings in her ears and nose, and sat cross-legged on a rug, twisting cotton balls into small wicks that are dipped in oil and burned for prayers. They were watching an internet video of a Hindu religious ceremony. “The place where we came from was like hell, and now the place we are in is like heaven,” Hasta explained.
About two decades ago, the Basnets fled their home in Bhutan at midnight, cutting their cows free and carrying away only a little money, food, and the clothes on their backs. Along with thousands of their Hindu neighbors, they settled in a UN refugee camp in Nepal, escaping religious persecution from Bhutan’s Buddhist government. Hasta was about 5. After 20 long years, the International Organization for Migration helped the Basnets resettle in the United States in 2011.
Today Hasta works for Lutheran Social Services as a Nepalese translator. He helps other Bhutanese refugees (there are around 1,500 in the region) find work at restaurants, hotels, and stores like Walmart. “It’s not that hard to find a job here in Fargo,” Hasta said. The Basnets say it’s “too cold” in Fargo, but they agreed Fargoans are friendly and welcoming. “The problem is we don’t understand what they are saying,” complained Hasta’s parents, in Nepalese. —D.J.D.