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How Big Decisions Shape A City’s Future

State Street in Madison Wisconsin

Photos by Debbie Brangenberg and Ben McAliliy

With a final deck pour on November 14, 2019, Block 9 in downtown Fargo topped out at 235 feet, and a new skyline of Fargo comes into sharper view. Block 9 is the first major addition since the Radisson was built in 1984.

Block 9 aims to create a new community asset; an anchor to draw people into the center of Fargo’s historic and cultural core. Its plaza promises to create a town square atmosphere, offering not only downtown events and activities to draw you, but simply a place to sit for anyone who wishes it.

There are big moments in a city’s evolution that can fundamentally change its shape and how people experience it for generations to come. Fargo recently completed a new City Hall downtown, situated on what can only be called a hill in Fargo, overlooking the Red River. The City is investing in landscaped green space, public art, and an urban tree canopy, giving a new twist on Fargo’s image and identity. Fargo is also preparing to build a new interstate exchange at 64th Avenue South, adding new land to Fargo’s footprint. Fargo is changing.

Civic leaders across the country can often point to big decisions in the past that changed the trajectory of their city. Often, these decisions are the result of identifying the city’s unique assets, and making a commitment to make the most of them.

Madison, Wisconsin

With the highest concentration of millennials compared to any other city in the country, has a downtown core that is anchored at one end by the majestic granite Wisconsin State Capitol, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison on the other. According to Rob Gard of Destination Madison, there were significant strategic decisions in Madison’s past that created a strong level of activity between the two institutions. 

“Thirty years ago, people came to work at the Capitol, then went straight home, leaving an empty downtown behind them,” said Gard. “Madison chose to work to ensure the link between the University and Capitol stays strong by maximizing the commercial, retail, and hospitality opportunities in the downtown core.”

In 1997, the city and county invested resources into building the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, which Gard says has been vital to attracting visitors. “It’s in our city center along with more than 20 restaurants, bars, retailers and music venues. Having it downtown gives visitors something fun to do that’s unique to our vibe. and in the process infuses more outside money into the entire region.”

A packed concert at Monona Terrace.
A packed concert at Monona Terrace.

“Downtown creates a deeper connection to the community,” he continues. “When attendees are not in the hall they are walking downtown. There is so much activity it draws residents too, and attendees feel embraced by the community. There are lots of positive interactions and opportunities for visitors and residents to enjoy the city together.”

In 2004, Overture Center for the Arts was built down the street from the Capitol in place of the former civic center. Gard says a conscious effort went into putting this important cultural venue downtown. “It’s a good balance,” he said. “You build for your community first, with visitors in mind. Our community assets are connected by a philosophy of partnership that exists in our city. If you build a place where visitors want to come, you will have a place where visitors want to live. If it is a place people want to live, companies will invest in jobs, then it all loops back around.”

Tupelo, Mississippi

Mayor Jason Shelton says the creation of the Fairpark Redevelopment Plan in 1999 fundamentally changed the trajectory of downtown Tupelo. He recalls a time when downtown was mainly just the ‘courthouse crowd,’ but retail was leaving for other parts of town. “As we saw downtown become more blighted and businesses leave, our city officials and the downtown Main Street Association committed to redeveloping the Fairpark District.”

A picture of the Fairpark District before and after redevelopment.
A picture of the Fairpark District before and after redevelopment.

Tupelo purchased the 50 acres of old county fairgrounds land for redevelopment and the effort continues today. Properties in the district are sold to individuals or businesses that want to develop them. If development doesn’t happen in two years, the city has the option to repurchase the land. The district’s Board can influence uses to ensure priorities like affordable housing and mixed-uses are part of the mix.

“For 30 years there has been a very concerted effort to protect and promote downtown,” Shelton says. 

“Cities across the country have abandoned buildings downtown. When properties like that become available in downtown Tupelo, the different public entities work to find tenants and promote them. It’s all part of the historical tax credit district so there is an opportunity to get some tax savings.”

Shelton likens it to someone performing in Nashville for 20 years and becoming an overnight sensation. “People have been working a really long time and things seem to be clicking on all cylinders right now.”

Shelton credits Tupelo’s entrepreneurs for keeping the city on the right path. 

“If your city is going to grow, it is because the city makes itself desirable to the generations coming,” he says. “They want livability, quality of life, convenience, and they want the cool factor. You can try to be cool, but that’s something that has to be more organic.”

Tupelo is becoming a foodie town Shelton says, because of a great group of engaged restaurant owners. A group of business owners formed Tupelo Rocks to close streets on Saturdays and bring in live music. The Downtown Bike Gang gathers neighbors in different spots around town for bicycle group rides. 

“If the city itself tries to do it, you lose the cool factor automatically because of ‘the mayor said we have to do this,’” says Shelton. “The city is a catalyst in space making; making sure there is a clean vibrant downtown. The city creates the environment where you allow creativity to thrive. You say yes to what your citizens want to do, then get out of the way and let people have a good time.”

Tupelo’s public investments into their downtown include a 10,000 seat arena, a $15 million aquatic center, and relocating City Hall to become a focal point in the center of the Fairpark District. Shelton says Tupelo is fortunate to have community partners and the ability to create public-private partnerships. 

“When there is criticism of public investments, it is important to be able to demonstrate the return on investment. In Tupelo, the figures are staggering: $74 million in public investment has leveraged $169 million in private investment. When you get the private business to start to build here again, then you start recouping that property tax and sales tax. And most importantly you get people in the city who call Tupelo home.”

 “To get to the heart of it, you can go across the country, any state, any region – whether it’s a highly populated part of the country or rural, North, South, East, West, the heartland – and look at their downtown and tell whether it’s a healthy city or not. It’s absolutely crucial to Fargo and every other city in America to have a healthy vibrant downtown. And when you have a healthy vibrant downtown, you have that focal point for the city and its citizens, you restore pride into your city, you enhance and beautify your city. There’s just no negative that can come from having a healthy vibrant downtown in any city in America.”

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