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Fargo Hip? You Betcha

The North Dakota city immortalized by the Coen brothers' film as a grim, frozen wasteland is reinventing itself as a stylish, worldly place.

March 10, 2004|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

FARGO, N.D. — The gift shop at the four-gate airport here sells the obligatory coffee mugs emblazoned with "Yah, you betcha." It also sells posters with moody black-and-white photos of great cities of the world: Moscow. London. Paris. Fargo.

It's no joke.

Or at least, not much of one.

The Coen brothers' grisly comedy "Fargo" cursed this city with a dreary reputation. Just one scene in the 1996 film takes place here. Yet Fargo became fixed in the public imagination as a frozen wasteland of seedy bars and hick accents.

The frozen part is undeniably accurate; the thermometer read minus 27 the other day, and a prairie wind was howling. But wasteland? Look again.

In the last three years, Fargo has begun to reinvent itself as improbably stylish, worldly, even luxurious -- to the point where the mayor has hopes of marketing the city as a vacation destination. Quietly, subversively, Fargo has gone trendy.

Oh, there are still plenty of dank bars where tap beer goes for 75 cents. And yes, a $500,000 condo downtown does sit just a block from the Valley Gun & Pawn Shop. But all along the two main downtown streets, hip restaurants, cafes and galleries beckon.

There's even a martini bar that serves sushi.

OK, it's just once a month. But still. In a stubbornly steak-and-potatoes state, that's noteworthy. Local menus burst with other culinary adventures as well, from dandelion salad to Asian gazpacho with cilantro cream, from rabbit loin to custard made from thorny green durian fruit imported from Vietnam.

"If I had to pick one adjective for what downtown Fargo was like 10 years ago, I would say 'sleazy,' " said Laurie Baker, 50, a yoga teacher. "Now, I would say, 'getting cosmopolitan.' We're not quite there yet. But we're getting there."

To reach this point, the city has spent $9 million to improve downtown's look, primarily by ripping out dingy, three-decade-old awnings that shrouded the sidewalks in perpetual gloom. Even the railroad crossings will be reconfigured, so residents won't have to put up with 85 ear-blasting train whistles a day.

Private investment has been encouraged with a Renaissance Zone. Development in the downtown core is exempt from property tax for five years; owners and tenants enjoy a five-year holiday from state and local income tax.

The result: In the last three years, 65 projects have been launched, transforming boarded-up tractor factories into offices, lofts, even an art museum. The properties had a combined value of less than $8 million when the work started. By the time they come back on the tax rolls, they're expected to be worth nearly $34 million.

Developers knew they wouldn't be able to woo Fargoans downtown with more of the same chain stores and franchise restaurants that are replicated every few blocks in the suburbs. So they set about creating distinctive boutiques and artsy hangouts -- the kind of places that residents in this city of 90,000 used to go to Minneapolis or Chicago to find.

Barbara's Deli doubles as an antique shop, crammed with wood chests and country-cute knickknacks. At Monte's, a sultry lounge with maroon walls, bartender Aaron Hennings concocts 35 specialty martinis.

And pastry chef Nichole Secker converted a 1950s-style diner into a butter-scented Parisian cafe. No longer can a caramel roll from the supermarket pass for fresh pastry in Fargo; Secker is at her silver mixing bowls early each morning to make lemon curd tarts and mocha mousse towers.

"I just felt we deserved a little ... pick an adjective. A little more eclectic fare," she said.

"Fargo's looking up," said Gabe Larson, 64, who has been cutting hair in the Golden Razor barbershop downtown for nearly half a century.

Certainly, the improvements are patchy. Vacant storefronts still gape here and there; an adult bookstore still entices with XXX movies. But every month, coffee houses and specialty shops open downtown, their red brick facades restored to their century-old splendor. An Art Deco cinema brings in offbeat films and live theater -- and packs the house for midnight showings of classic movies.

Living in Luxury

From a warehouse so long abandoned that icicles hung from the basement ceiling in winter, developer John Dalen has carved out 11 luxury condos. Most are priced around $300,000. The showpiece, though, is a half-a-million-dollar, 5,000-square-foot loft with two fireplaces, hardwood floors, vaulted ceilings and 18-foot-high atrium windows. It's already been snapped up, months before it will be ready for occupation. In fact, all but two units have been sold -- and Dalen said several bidders are vying for those.

"We had some real naysayers when we told our friends we were moving downtown," said Cathy Rice, a mortgage broker, who bought a condo with her husband, Tim. "But we were excited to be part of something different."

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