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Policy: Environment & Energy

New leaders mull direction of Fargo's rapid growth

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FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Dennis Walaker stepped to the podium after winning a third term as Fargo mayor and delivered a simple message to residents in North Dakota's largest city: Let the good times roll.

"The next four years should be very good for all of us. Right?" Walaker said during Tuesday's victory speech. "By all indications, the future is very bright for our community."

Then came the warning. Despite a low unemployment rate, a blossoming downtown and the trickle-down benefits of the western North Dakota oil boom, civic leaders face the enviable problem of having to manage Fargo's unprecedented growth. That includes decisions on constructing a new convention center, overhauling dilapidating apartments, adding downtown parking and, perhaps most importantly, controlling urban sprawl.

Fargo's recent renaissance isn't a secret: In the past two weeks alone, the Washington Post and Star Tribune of Minneapolis have run stories praising Fargo's social scene and touting the city as a Midwest magnet for creative types and entrepreneurs. Last fall, ESPN's "College Gameday" broadcast live from outside the historic Fargo Theater as it featured North Dakota State University's hyper-successful football team — a rare nod to a team that program that competes in the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision.

It was enough to make local college professor and blogger Adam Copeland write on the day after the election that the rave reviews are overshadowing some needed improvements. Commissioner Mike Williams, who was not up for re-election, agrees.

"We can't just keep patting ourselves on the back all the time when there are things we need to do to change to make it better," Williams said.

"The downtown is what makes us special," said Dave Piepkorn, who was voted back on the commission after being ousted in 2012. "That is why GameDay picked downtown. It's great, it is unique. But this is a big city now. There are a lot of people who don't consider downtown their priority, "

Williams and Piepkorn are worried about people putting down roots on the edges of the city when there's plenty of space in the older neighborhoods. Williams said Fargo used to have an average of 6 people per acre and has a goal of 9 people per acre. Right now the number is 3 people per acre.

Fargo currently has 48 sections, or 48 square miles, of annexed land for a population of about 112,000. The city is projected to reach about 260,000 people by 2040.

"If we continue to grow the way we are, we would need 112 sections of land," Williams said, which would larger than Minneapolis and St. Paul combined. "It's ridiculous."

And expensive. Construction in new areas requires new infrastructure and services, including the addition of police, fire, street cleaning and garbage workers. Williams said it amounts to people in higher density areas subsidizing development on land that is cheaper than the middle of the city. New homeowners also get a two-year tax break.

"We're basically incentivizing sprawl, but the people who are living in the core are paying the same tax rate of the people who are requiring a higher cost rate for delivery of services," Williams said. "So it really matters how you grow and where you grow."

The commission appears to agree on the need for affordable housing in traditional neighborhoods. Piepkorn said the city has done a good job of preserving and remodeling older buildings, but should change its focus with the open spaces in the heart of town.

"Our goal should be to fill those with new construction," he said. "It's the least expensive place to build."

City commissioner at deputy mayor Tim Mahoney said the penchant for building inexpensive apartment complexes will also play a factor as the city continues to grow.

"They're not built to last 100 years," Mahoney said. "How we manage those and avoid blight and decay is going to be one of our challenges."

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