Cover Story

Fargo: No longer Far-gone

"Fargo: No longer Far-gone" Continued...

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.

BOOMING: Downtown Fargo.
Tom Stromm/The Bismarck Tribune/AP
BOOMING: Downtown Fargo.
Jake and Nathan Joraanstad.
Daniel James Devine
Jake and Nathan Joraanstad.
GROWTH: The Red River Women’s Clinic, North Dakota’s only abortion facility.
Dan Koeck/Reuters/Landov
GROWTH: The Red River Women’s Clinic, North Dakota’s only abortion facility.
The Microsoft campus.
Associated Press/Photo by Alyssa Hurst
The Microsoft campus.
Railroad tracks downtown.
Daniel James Devine
Railroad tracks downtown.

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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.

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