Billion Dollar City

Construction began earlier this month on the 11th Street double underpass beneath the BNSF railroad tracks that separate Center Avenue from First Avenue to the north and Main to the south. The project will be completed in 2026. (Photos/Nancy Hanson)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

Something big is going on in Moorhead. Yet few residents have stopped to put its enormous impact all together.
You can see what’s been happening in more than 500 new apartments that have been built or are under construction downtown, along with 300-plus south of I-94 and more scattered elsewhere; occupancy rates are said to be the highest in the metro area.
You can see it in businesses opening their doors. You can spot block after block of new homes popping up in developments to the south and east.
Moorhead is clearly on the upswing. The city has been making great strides – growth so dramatic that some are calling it the “Billion Dollar City.” Residential and commercial growth, coupled with six-figure investments in public facilities and infrastructure, stands to increase the city’s total property valuation by at least 20 percent. It stood at $5 billion five years ago.
“Six years ago, when I was elected to the city council, you could feel an undercurrent of excitement beginning to build,” Mayor Shelly Carlson reflects. During Del Rae Williams’ term as mayor and into the administration of her successor Johnathan Judd, leaders were hard at work on two critical projects: Developing the comprehensive plan for the city titled “Onward Moorhead,” and laying the groundwork for downtown redevelopment.
“The momentum was there, and it’s been growing ever since,” she says. “Moorhead has shown it can compete on its own merits. People want to be a part of that positivity.”
The optimism in those two crucial plans – developed after consultation with a broad swathe of the city’s residents, along with its businesses and public officials – has blossomed into a contagious confidence in all that Moorhead has to offer.
As the construction season of 2024 begins, hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of major construction is underway across the city. Some of that money is public, drawing on federal, state, county and city coffers, but much of it is private investment, mostly by developers and corporations based beyond the city limits.
The rubble and hope that surrounds three city landmarks tells the tale. Construction of Moorhead High School has moved into its final stage with demolition this month of the former 1960s-era building. Heavy construction equipment and crews have begun digging into the 11th Street corridor between First Avenue North and Main Avenue, beginning to burrow beneath the BNSF rails that have stymied cross-town travel since the city was a pup. And half of the 52-year-old Center Mall has been reduced to rubble, clearing the way for the first of what’s projected to be $500 million worth of private development on its 18 acres over the coming five to ten years.
The first two of those projects alone amount to more than a quarter-billion dollars. The first two – the sales tax-funded community center and regional library and the 600 Block, the initial private mixed-use development to be announced – will close to another $100 million.
Let’s not forget flood mitigation. It goes back farther than the advances cited here, back to the aftermath of the record flood of 2009. But that investment has increased the development prospects and value of land throughout the city. The city is asking the Legislature this year to appropriate $14.5 million to complete it, bringing the total to more than $110 million.
On the north edge of town along 15th Avenue, Clay County is adding two more facilities to the $21 million Resource Recovery Center. To its west, the county’s new detox and withdrawal management center, with a price tag of $17 million, is nearing completion. Next door, the $6 million DMV building is well underway. Add to that the Joint Law Enforcement Center and Correctional Facility ($52 million), the West Central Regional Juvenile Center expansion ($7.5 million), and the move of county offices into the Governmental Center on 12th Avenue South ($2 million).
“We have been building confidence in the city, and people are taking notice,” suggests economic development consultant Derrick LaPoint, also president of Downtown Moorhead Inc. “We started looking at operating more efficiently and effectively in our policies and procedures. We’ve focused on connecting with businesses, architects, Realtors and developers.
“After being kind of dismissed for years, Moorhead is getting more attention now than we ever have – not only around the Fargo-Moorhead area, but in the region and the state. People have bought into our drive to help this place grow … to make it a desirable place to live, work and play. They’re growing confident in what we have to offer.”
That confidence is reflected in accelerating private development. As an example, LaPoint points to the Mazola Shopping Center area, with not only its supermarket, lounge and other businesses, but the organizations that have relocated there — First International Bank, Village Family Services, Starbucks, Steroid Dentistry and Moorhead Vision Associates. On 30th Avenue South, Sandman Structural Engineers and Solutions Behavioral Healthcare have built new headquarters.
Two miles to the east, the MCCARA Industrial Park is thriving, drawing regional attention with the largest shovel-ready industrial site, at 200 acres, in all of Minnesota, along with eight other newly opened sites.
Carlson notes that last year the city set a five-year record for residential building permits within the city at a time when the number of rental units was also exploding. She told the area’s home builders about that at the recent annual meeting of the FM Building Industry Association (formerly the Home Builders). After her talk, the group’s executive called her back to the podium to acknowledge her city as the star of the moment: More residential building permits were issued by Moorhead in 2023 than by either of its fast-growing neighbors west of the Red River.
She expects the good news to continue in the days ahead. “In the past, a lot of projects were proposed here that never were realized,” she observes. “Now, it’s really happening.
“People have underestimated Moorhead for far too long. Now,” she emphasizes, “we’re showing them they shouldn’t.

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