A Different Side of Fargo

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I just came back from Fargo, North Dakota. On the coasts, that's usually enough to elicit some sneers. Yet Fargo is not quite what people think. Not just a bunch of freezing yokels who speak like Canadians.

The place is booming. The local economy is going on all cylinders. The agricultural business is benefiting from the shift to ethanol and other-grain based fuels. This is aiding the local farm machinery business. Then, there's an expanding tech center, anchored by Microsoft Business Systems, formerly Great Plains Software, but now including scores of diverse tech-oriented companies.

As entrepreneurial activity expands, the place is changing. When I first started going to Fargo nearly a decade ago, it was just another fading Great Plains town. The downtown was a mess, and the coffee so bad, I brought my own from California. Now Fargo-Moorhead (the Minnesota town across the river) boasts several decent restaurants. Downtown even has a clothing store aimed at metrosexuals and a great boutique hotel -- the Hotel Donaldson -- that reminds me of the Muse Hotel in Manhattan.

This should tell us something about how cities evolve, and develop amenities. Acolytes of the Richard Florida school tend to see amenities as what brings in the talent and the companies. But in Fargo, and I think most places, ias President Clinton once pointed out, it's the economy, stupid. You get a couple of thousand techies with good educations and salaries - many of whom have lived previously in Chicago, Minneapolis or the Bay Area - and they will create a market for amenities. That's the way it works -- economy first, amenities second. If it worked the other way around, New Orleans would have become a high-tech mecca.

One other thing that is often overlooked in the rush by cities and regions to be "hip and cool": many techies have kids and family ties. Mike Chambers, president of Aldevron says he has stacks of resumes for every new job posting. Many of these are 30 something who either want to return home to Fargo, or think they can offer a better life for their family there. It's great, he says, for people to live in fast paced big cities in their 20s. They learn things, make contacts, perhaps find a spouse.

But after all that, there's much to reccommend a Fargo, particularly if you are settling down. I will have more on what is happening in the Plains states in future posts. There's additional material on my website.

Last updated: Jul 24, 2006




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