Photo by Hillary Ehlen
When the Downtown Moorhead Inc. board was done reviewing the nearly 150 applicants from across the country who applied to be its first president, they still hadn’t found “the one.” Lucky for them, the one they were looking for was right across the river. Meet Derrick LaPoint, the guy tasked with doing what no one else has been able to: make downtown Moorhead cool again.
Derrick LaPoint: Where He’s Been
After an accomplished career with the University of North Dakota men’s hockey team, LaPoint spent a couple years playing professional hockey on the East Coast. While extensive travel is part and parcel of being a pro athlete, he says life on the road wasn’t all bad, as it gave him a chance to visit a lot of towns and cities and see what kinds of urban development were working and which weren’t.
“Most of the communities we went to had large downtown centers,” says LaPoint, who, during this time, was perhaps unknowingly preparing for his second career. “Some were really good; some were really bad; some were really old; some were really modern. I got to see how different places were designed and what worked functionally and what didn’t.”
After his hockey career ended due to injury, LaPoint ended up in Speedway, Indiana, a self-contained enclave within Indianapolis, gaining valuable hands-on experience working in city government.
“I got to have my hands in everything in that town,” says LaPoint, who landed the gig after emailing a number of municipalities in the area telling them he’d work for free in exchange for experience. “I wasn’t just a coffee runner and didn’t work on just one project. I got to work right underneath the city manager and did all sorts of stuff.”
After going back to school to complete a master’s at his alma mater, both LaPoint and his wife eventually landed jobs in Fargo, she as a genetics counselor with Sanford Health and he in the newly created role of “Manager of Land Entitlement” with Fargo-based hotel developer TMI Hospitality.
“I was able to learn a lot and go to a lot of municipalities again and understand government,” says LaPoint, who, in the position, worked with city governments to get hotels entitled.
For the last three years, LaPoint worked as a planner with the City of Fargo, focusing mainly on downtown issues such as incentive programs, parking and codes.
“I have a pretty vast knowledge base of how urban centers work,” says LaPoint, who adds that he’s hoping downtown Moorhead is the beneficiary of the relationships he’s built with local and national developers during his time in Fargo. “And while I didn’t experience the ‘lows’ of Downtown Fargo, knowing where it was at and then watching it blossom and continue to grow was a good experience.”
1. Good for Downtown = Good for the City
LaPoint says he and his team are looking to take advantage of what’s become a nationwide trend of reviving and developing downtowns as a way to spur economic growth in cities.
“When you have an urban center — and you do it correctly with a lot of people living down there; you have retail; you have offices — you can really build a large tax base in a relatively small area,” LaPoint says. “And from a city planner’s perspective, if you were going to start a brand new city and had limited funds, your dollar stretches a lot further if you concentrate that growth into a small, regional center rather than spreading all your infrastructure out throughout a community. If you think about Center Avenue, for example, you could service 50 businesses on one pipe, not to mention things like plow and fire services. It’s just easier to manage.”
2. A Community Vision
While LaPoint says he has his own ideas for downtown Moorhead, he also understands it can’t just be his or his board’s vision; it has to be a community vision.
“The opportunity we have is to really engage the citizens of Moorhead and ask where we want to go together,” he says. “How do we all become proud of what’s downtown and then be excited about it and utilize it? Because it should be an area that’s open and available for everybody, not just the bar crowd or young people. It should be ages 8-80.”
LaPoint alludes to a number of studies that show it’s not just Millennials gravitating toward downtowns but also older generations like the Baby Boomers.
“They’re moving out of their suburbs and coming into smaller areas,” LaPoint says, “because they want to be somewhere where you can walk; you can bike; you can do pretty much everything in a short distance.
3. Clearing the Air on Incentives
“When I was in Fargo, there was a lot of misinformation (about incentives),” LaPoint says. “(In Moorhead), it will really be about providing a clear, consistent message across the board. Incentives get such a bad rap in Fargo, but there’s such a limited understanding of how those deals come about, what they actually are and how much people are really profiting from them.”
In that vein, the Moorhead Economic Development Authority has designated three “Urban Progress Zones” — Downtown, Near Downtown and Transitional — that will have different incentives available for businesses based on the zone they’re in. LaPoint asks that developers contact himself or Moorhead Economic Development Authority Executive Director Cindy Graffeo for more information.
4. Moorhead’s Competitive Advantages
LaPoint says that, in addition to Moorhead’s competitiveness in the property tax arena and Minnesota’s Border Cities property tax credit program, there are a number of other current and potential competitive advantages Moorhead has over its metro neighbors.
“There’s land available at a lower cost,” he says. “And I think something that will eventually happen in Downtown Fargo is that costs will get so high that some people may get forced out. We have the ability in Moorhead to utilize that as a tool and use it as a way to get people in the door.
“There’s also tremendous opportunity with the green spaces along the riverfront. I think if there’s a way to embrace the river and get people engaged — I’m thinking Woodlawn Park, Viking Park, the area down by American Crystal Sugar’s offices — there are opportunities people can get on board with.”
5. Have to Start Somewhere
LaPoint says he hopes Center Avenue will eventually become Moorhead’s Broadway, evidenced and jump-started by a couple of projects announced last year led by local developer and architect, Kevin Bartram.
The old Moorhead armory and the adjacent Simon Warehouse building are planned to be converted into an events center and apartment complex, respectively.
“Maybe these two projects are the catalyst for breaking down risk and coming into the community,” says LaPoint, who adds that he’s also excited by the progress of the new mixed-use building at the corner of Eighth Street and Main Avenue (rendering above). “I think it should tell a lot about where we have the potential to go.
“For the longest time, there just wasn’t anything being built in downtown Moorhead. So I think it’s about the momentum, a little push of a ball that you just keep pushing and pushing until you get it rolling down the hill. I think it’s a fun story to tell about some of the older buildings in downtown Moorhead.” coming back to life.”
6. More Residents, More Development
One thing LaPoint says he intends to stress with investors and the community is the importance of getting more people actually living in downtown Moorhead.
“If you can get more people living down there, eating at the restaurants, shopping at the mall, wanting to work there and do things, there is typically less of a barrier for developers to come in and develop,” LaPoint says. “We also need to create a sense of community. The residential we do have is great — down by the riverfront, for example — and the core neighborhoods on either side, but that’s definitely one thing I’ll be working with the city on. Maybe we can even set a housing goal of a number of units we want to see in the next 5-10 years.”
What Is Downtown Moorhead Inc.?
- A group of private business leaders and university presidents aiming to develop and change the perception of downtown Moorhead
- Funded 100% by private investment
- In contrast to the Moorhead Business Association and Moorhead EDA, it will focus exclusively on downtown Moorhead and its fringes
LaPoint says he’s looking forward to building partnerships with not just Moorhead organizations such as the City of Moorhead, Moorhead EDA and MBA, but also the Fargo-based Greater Fargo-Moorhead EDC.
“Together, these groups can be a voice for positive change in downtown Moorhead,” he says.