By Danielle Teigen
Google “Why live in Fargo, ND”. You’ll see results like “5 Common Misconceptions About Fargo, North Dakota” and “After I Dissed North Dakota, The State Flew Me To Fargo To Prove Me Wrong.” Don’t forget about “Why I’ll Never Move to North Dakota” and, just below that, “11 Reasons You Should Move to North Dakota.”
These cheeky results amplify one of Fargo’s biggest challenges: telling the world how fantastic the city is while dispelling pesky misperceptions that continue to persist in the minds of everyone who has never been to Fargo.
Because you can’t actually know what Fargo is like until you come here.
And once you come here, you may never want to leave.
How Stereotypes Can Help
To some, the infamous Coen brothers’ movie Fargo is either the best or worst thing to its namesake. The comedic depiction of a sleepy, backwoods city and its weird-speaking inhabitants perpetuated a stereotype Fargo had already been battling for decades. Some laughed the movie off. Others hated it. But no one could change the fact that the movie (and now television series) exists.
“It’s there, so we might as well embrace it,” said Jim Gartin, president of the Greater Fargo-Moorhead Economic Development Corporation (GFMEDC). “People around the world now know about Fargo because of the movie and television series. We just have to embrace it and talk positively about it.”
Gartin himself is one of those people who didn’t understand Fargo until he arrived. Four years ago he lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, running an economic development corporation when he received a call about transferring his skills to an EDC elsewhere. “When (my friend) said the job was in Fargo, I hung up,” Gartin said, laughing. His friend called back and convinced Gartin to do a little research before ruling it out. When he finally visited – in December, no less – Gartin was sold.
“I was amazed this area had gone through the recession at a fraction of what the rest of the country endured,” Gartin explained. “I thought Fargo must be on the cusp, a proverbial tipping point, of something great.”
Reaching Critical Mass
Malcolm Gladwell describes the tipping point as “the moment of critical mass.” If you’re searching for Fargo’s tipping point in its current technological and entrepreneurial rise, you might drop a pin in 1999. That’s when the city’s renaissance zone was approved by the state, allowing significant tax exemptions to play a role in renovating countless buildings in the heart of Fargo that now supply a steady stream of property tax revenue.
You might drop a pin in 2001. That’s when Microsoft acquired a local software development company called Great Plains Software. Doug Burgum – a name now synonymous with development, revitalization and entrepreneurship – was president at the time.
His passionate redevelopment venture through Kilbourne Group has injected new life into downtown Fargo, re-establishing it as the heart of the city.
“I can buy talent and creativity, but I can’t buy passion,” Gartin said about Burgum’s influence and interest in downtown Fargo.
Those events prompted people to look at Fargo in a way it hadn’t before – as an important metropolitan area and technology hub with as much to offer as any other city. Perhaps even more.
Getting People to Fargo
Lou Wetzel, director of talent management at Intelligent Insites, is the perfect person to entice people to move to Fargo for a job. Wetzel’s prior military career took her to many other places, but after 20 years away, she returned to Fargo, astonished at the growth.
Her time spent elsewhere means Wetzel understands that every city has drawbacks; summers in Arizona can turn into a brutal blast furnace. “We are our own worst enemies,” she explained. “We joke about the cold, but instead of talking about just that, we need to embrace the cold and the great things that come with it, like winter sports, ice fishing and snowmobiling.”
Yes, winters in Fargo can get cold, but the average high for December through February is 21 degrees. Above zero. And yes, Fargo may see an annual snowfall of about 50 inches. But, the average high temperature for June through August is a balmy 80 degrees. Couple that with the fact that during those summer months, nearly 70 percent of the days are sunny.
The idea of presenting Fargo’s notoriously cold, snowy winters as a destination opportunity balances the summer lake season. People outside the area often know little about how close “lakes country” is to Fargo, meaning they can be enjoying resort-like life every weekend in the summer.
Safety is key when recruiting, Wetzel said, especially when she’s dealing with young families. In Chicago, a person has a 1 in 113 chance of becoming a victim of violent crime, while in Fargo, the rate is 1 in 281, according to NeighborhoodScout.com.
Wetzel shared a story of a young woman from India whose family was physically afraid for her to move to Fargo for a tech job. The woman assuaged her family’s anxiety by sharing the fact that people don’t always lock their doors, because many have a small town mentality that makes them accountable for their actions.
Samatha Mohr, a talent partner at Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota, and Wetzel are both members of FM TechConnect, a group organized by the GFMEDC. The group focuses on recruiting and retaining tech talent as well as educating the community about opportunities in the technology sector.
Mohr serves as chairperson of the FM TechConnect committee, which is working on an action plan to help dispel the misperceptions potential employees – and the country – have about Fargo. But it isn’t easy.
“People don’t understand until they see and experience it for themselves,” Mohr said.
Fargo: A Shining Example
One of Fargo’s more distinct characteristics has less to do with how people talk and more with why they talk: to collaborate.
Tom Stellman, president of TIP Strategies in Austin, Texas, admitted he knew little about Fargo before coming here to work on a major community workforce study. As he learned more about the city and chatted with business people, he quickly realized that Fargo had surpassed his expectations.
“Leaders in the community have a super collaborative attitude,” Stellman said. “They bring everyone together to work on challenges and solve them together. I was really impressed with all of the world-class companies doing well in Fargo.”
The entrepreneurial movement that has been invigorating the community in recent years caught Stellman by surprise. “One Million Cups really impressed me. I wasn’t expecting that in Fargo. I’ve worked in other small to medium-sized markets that haven’t yet embraced the entrepreneurial spirit and Fargo’s ‘I-can-change-the-world-from-here’ mindset.”
To Stellman, Fargo has become an epitome of entrepreneurial best practices. “There’s a lot more going on in Fargo than people know about,” he said. “I tell people they could learn a lot from what’s going on there.”
Exceeding expectations isn’t surprising. That’s what happens when people constantly underestimate the community. Each time Fargo ends up on a top 10 list, a few more ears perk up. A few more people take note.
“Fargo is an incredible place to live, work and raise a family,” Gartin shared. “We have a fantastic school system with exemplary education on both sides of the river. The 35,000 college students create an atmosphere of creativity and exuberance. We have amenities, activities and a great quality of life.”
In other words, Fargo has it all. But you can’t know that from a Google search. You have to see it for yourself.
The preceding story is published in Impact: The magazine for Fargo-Moorhead business and industry 2016