Photos courtesy of Kilbourne Group
If you’re new to Fargo, there’s something you should know: It wasn’t always like this. We take for granted the bustling city center that Downtown has become—filled with trendy restaurants, farmers markets and charming buildings—but not all that long ago, the landscape was quite different.
In partnership with our friends at Tellwell and Kilbourne Group, we’ll be telling the story of Downtown’s transformation in a series focused on the pivotal projects and historic renovations that paved the way for what the area has now become.
Each story will also have an accompanying mini-documentary that can be found on Kilbourne Group’s blog: KilbourneGroup.com/News
Before there were family dentist appointments and annual check-ups, there were cars propped up on hoists, stacks upon stacks of printing paper, and bricked and boarded-up windows to keep the light out.
This is just a glimpse into the life of Family HealthCare’s home in Downtown Fargo, a prominent brick structure on Northern Pacific Avenue.
Originally built in 1920 as the Pence Automobile Building, the Classical Revival-style building is now home to Family HealthCare, a family-oriented, primary-care clinic that provides a variety of medical services and sees thousands of people come through it each week.
Turning an old auto factory into a polished clinic and office space was no easy task, though. It was a collective journey that’s now woven into the fabric of Fargo’s story. And one might say that it all started with … bats.
Yes, that kind of bat. Before Family HealthCare had a new home, one clinic was in the basement of a church that often had no electricity and sometimes unexpected furry friends.
“We had bugs, we had bats and, we had no running water,” says Kim Seeb, director of homeless health services at Family HealthCare.
“And we didn’t have any windows so if the power went out, you couldn’t see a thing,” adds Clinical Director Lynelle Huseby.
The spaces were small and crowded, often with patients lined up shoulder to shoulder as they waited for a room to open up. It was uncomfortable, and it certainly wasn’t conducive to the healing that’s supposed to take place at a healthcare clinic.
“I felt like I had to treat all these other things in addition to the medical problems,” says Dr. Napoleon Espejo, the center’s medical director. “It was not the best place for healing.”
As a result, the leadership team of Family HealthCare was always on the hunt for new space, but they never expected to find it in the former Pence Building that had sat vacant for decades.
“It was a Cadillac,” says Fargo Mayor Dr. Tim Mahoney, who was the director of the board Family HealthCare at the time. “It was, ‘Holy cow. Look at all this space, and look at all the things you could do with it.'”
When they first began to look at the building, though, it was still a dark, empty, 56,000-square-foot warehouse. Kilbourne Group Project Manager Mark Johnson described it as “the way you might imagine a scary movie.”
“It was a Cadillac! It was, ‘Holy cow. Look at all this space, and look at all the things you could do with it.'”
The original architecture had been obscured, and the adjoining buildings were so decrepit that tenants worried about stepping through the floor on the second story. Given what it was, it was hard to imagine what it could be—not to mention the funds it would cost to renovate such a space.
“When we first looked at the building and looked at all the challenges it had, we thought we would never be able to afford it,” says Mayor Mahoney. “We would never be able to see it come to fruition.”
But they knew a team that could do it.
Fargo-based commercial-development firm Kilbourne Group had already purchased the former warehouse/showroom in 2007, as well as the three adjacent buildings to ensure they would be preserved. The Pence Warehouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and Kilbourne Group Founder and current North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum knew it could be a perfect candidate for real-estate resuscitation. Or a large healthcare operation.
And with the success of Renaissance Hall under their belt, they had the right team to revitalize an eyesore of a building.
Together, the leadership of Kilbourne Group and Family HealthCare met to discuss how to cover costs. What emerged was one of the most elaborate, creative funding models ever seen in Fargo’s history.
“Any time you can preserve a building of this age, it gives you history for the community,” says Dennis Olsen. “In 1967, Downtown was really … dying. Now, it’s a whole different ball game. It’s exciting to be here.”
“I give it credit that our consultants came in, and Patricia Patron (then-CEO of Family HealthCare) worked very hard with everybody,” says Mayor Mahoney. “And through what I like to call ‘inventive engineering,’ or financing, we were able to come up with a way of getting this building.”
In short, it was a model that combined historic tax credits with new-market tax credits, in addition to a highly competitive grant that Family HealthCare applied for. Kilbourne Group hired architects to provide detailed plans of what the new space would look like and how it would be used to increase Family HealthCare’s services. Family HealthCare was one of only two clinics in the region to receive the grant.
In 2011, Kilbourne Group sold the building to Family HealthCare for just under $1.5 million. Then, led by the project’s construction manager, Dennis Olsen, and the team at Michael J. Burns Architects, they began to transform the old warehouse into something new.
“It becomes a challenge to take what was once a warehouse and turn it into something you feel proud of,” Olsen says. “The westerly side was really in the toughest shape. It had been a hotel, then possibly apartments. For us, it was a matter of demolishing, cleaning it, tearing up the floors, and putting them back down to get to the point of reconstruction into an office setup.”
The windows were re-opened and re-installed the same way they had been decades ago. The original maplewood floors were re-sanded and polished to look like new. Wonderful details such as the terrazzo floors, a pink-marble staircase with metal-and-wood balustrade, and a backdrop of the original glazed brick from the building all helped recreate the original beauty. Even old enseignements on the building were repainted in order to preserve the historic integrity. Slowly but surely, the concrete-and-masonry structure began to breathe again with new light and life.
By 2012, Family HealthCare had opened its doors. The new facility enabled them to go from roughly a dozen exam rooms to more than 30, serving thousands more patients per week than was possible before. They were also able to consolidate their services into one building rather than multiple buildings, providing dental and medical care, physical therapy, provider meetings and homeless health, all under one roof.
“It’s a place that [the guests] all respect as their space.It’s a safe place for them to go that’s beautiful and clean and doesn’t look like a ‘poor person’s’ clinic.”
“Consolidating helps bring all the patients to one place and creates the sense of a medical home,” says Family HealthCare CEO Pat Gulbranson.
“Many of Family HealthCare’s patients are underinsured or uninsured. Particularly in the homeless health clinic, it’s important the the guests feel respected, and the new building helped them achieve that sense of dignity,” says Seeb.
“It’s a place that they all respect as their space,” she says. “It’s a safe place for them to go that’s beautiful and clean and doesn’t look like a ‘poor person’s’ clinic. They’re very receptive to that.”
The addition of a large healthcare clinic has also brought new life to a part of Fargo that, for decades, was simply empty buildings. It’s located near a bus stop, making healthcare easily accessible for families living in nearby neighborhoods. Now, NP Avenue is home to many other new businesses and can be seen bustling with people every day.