No Joke: It Couldn't Get Much Better In Fargo

Apr 11 2014, 9:31am CDT | by

This week the coastal crowd will get another opportunity to laugh at the zany practices of those living in the frozen reaches of the Great Plains. The new television series “Fargo,” based on the 1996 Coen brothers movie, will no doubt be filled with fearsome violence mixed with the proper amount of Scandinavian reserve and wry humor — the very formula that made the original such as hit.

Yet how much will “Fargo” the series resemble the real places? Probably not much. For one thing the series only uses Fargo as a kind of marker; the action actually takes place in Bemidji, Minn., a small town of 12,000 over two hours away. I know distances are seen differently in the northern Plains, but the whole idea seems a bit of a stretch. Located in forest and lake country, many locals would not even consider the Minnesota town part of the Plains.

Less known to the sophistos who will watch the show is that Fargo, a metro area with over 200,000 people, and the state of North Dakota have been enjoying a sustained boom for a decade. This resurgence — in demographics, economics and real estate — follows decades of relative decline and an almost sullen sense of isolation that drove many people out of the state.

In a state where the unofficial motto seems to be “it could be worse” — not a bad notion given the often miserable weather — things couldn’t be much better. North Dakota leads the nation in virtually every indicator of prosperity: the lowest unemployment rate, and the highest rates of net in-migration, income growth and job creation. Last year North Dakota wages rose a remarkable 8.9%, twice as much as Utah and Texas, which shared honors for second place, and many times the 1% rise experienced nationwide.

The once dreary predictions of demographic decline — epitomized by the proposal two New Jersey academics to turn the area into a “Buffalo Commons” — have been reversed. North Dakota now lures many college graduates from out of state and keeps more of its own as well. Today more than half of North Dakotans aged 25-44 have post-secondary degrees, among the highest percentages in the nation, and well above the roughly 40% number for the rest of the country.

Many will ascribe the state’s rise primarily to the energy boom. To be sure the fastest growth in North Dakota and other Plains states has been in the areas closest to the oil and gas finds. But over the past decade, the population of the Plains has expanded by 14%, well above the national average and far faster than the Midwest, the Northeast or California.

This Plains resurgence is taking place even in areas far from energy development. Fargo, for example, is six hours hard driving from Williston, the center of the Bakken range. Yet despite this the area’s population has been growing, up 20% in the last decade, twice the national average. Since 2010, over 8,000 more people have come to the Fargo metro area, which extends to the Minnesota city of Moorhead, than have left. In fact, the small cities of the Dakotas have been growing faster than the nation for well more than a decade, before the recent energy boom took off.

The growth in Fargo has come not so much from energy, but an expanding industrial and technology sector. STEM employment is up nearly 40% since 2001, compared to 3% nationally. It also leads all other U.S. metro areas in the growth in the number of mid-skilled jobs, providing good wages to people with two-year or certificate degrees. Between 2009 and 2011, mid-skilled employment grew 5%, roughly 10 times the national average. No surprise then that the population with BAs in Fargo has grown 50% in the last decade, well above the 40% rate for the rest of the country.

Yet perhaps nothing illustrates the dramatic changes in Fargo better than its downtown area. Twenty years ago, when I first visited the city, downtown was torpid on a good day. Storefronts were old, funky and often empty. The local hotels ranged between acceptable to sorry.

But in the past decade downtown Fargo has seen a crush of new investment; property values have more than doubled since 2000. Mid-range apartment complexes are sprouting up, all pitching themselves to millennial professionals who value a more pedestrian-oriented environment. The founder of Great Plains Software, now Microsoft Business Systems, Doug Burgum, has proposed to build a 23-story office tower downtown. Not surprisingly, it would be the tallest building in the state.

Some are rightfully skeptical about some of these ambitious plans given the low cost of development on the periphery and the region’s basically non-urban mindset. But the feel has certainly changed, with several high-end restaurants, huge numbers of bars (befitting the German and Scandinavian roots of the area’s population), offering a rising number of local brews. There’s even a boutique hotel, the Donaldson, founded by Burgum’s ex-wife Karen, decorated with Plains art, and run by a friendly, highly professional staff.

The people even look different than a decade or two ago. The bars and restaurants now host a more attractive group of young professionals and meandering divorcees. The change is so striking that I have been pitching friends in L.A. to produce a North Dakota version of the “Real Housewives” reality series.

None of this is likely to be revealed in the new “Fargo” TV show. After all, the place has one of the lowest crime rates in the country, a full third below the national average; with only 11 murders since 2000, it’s hardly the Baltimore of the “Wire” or “Treme.” But murder sells better than contentment, or at least makes for more riveting entertainment about the place, unless I can find buyers for my “Housewives” idea. But unlike in the past, Fargo residents don’t have to cringe about this latest Hollywood assault and its impact on their image. Things are good enough that they can afford to laugh; it certainly could be a lot worse.

 
 
 

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