First Place in the Race to Revive Downtown

Sterling Development is constructing a new apartment building east of the historic Fairmont Creamery on First Avenue North. The remodeled creamery building includes 37 apartments; 106 are in the new three-story structure.

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

The first private developer has stepped up with a mixed-use development on the site of the Center Mall.
Architect and developer Kevin Bartram is moving forward with plans to build 650 Center, a two-building complex that will include about 14,700 square feet of first-floor commercial space, enclosed ground-level parking, and three floors of one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments in each of two separate four-story towers. They will be joined by the parking garage accommodating 110 to 125 vehicles, topped with a connecting outdoor plaza.
Bartram’s Sterling Development Group Four is investing $25 million in the complex, which will be located between the vacant United Sugars building and Seventh Street. The southern building will overlook Center Avenue, while the somewhat larger apartments in the second will look out over the BNSF tracks toward the river and Daly Park.
Approval of a city Renaissance Zone property tax exemption at Monday’s city council meeting cleared the way for the project. According to Bartram, negotiations between his firm, the city and Roers Development have cleared the way to build the complex on the parking lots that begin just east of the vacant United Sugars structure, which he purchased two years ago and subsequently sold to Roers. Sixth Street will be extended between that building and his property, heading north and then taking a left turn before connecting with Third Street.
Construction is expected to commence in May, about the same time as Moorhead’s community center and regional library. That publicly funded facility will occupy the mall’s southwest parking lot and site of the soon-to-be-demolished south extension of the mall, formerly occupied by the Thai Orchid and Nails Pro. It’s expected to tip the scales at about $41.5 million, largely underwritten by the half-cent city sales tax approved by the voters in November.
When 650 Center’s towers are completed in late 2025, Bartram’s contribution to Moorhead’s goal of building a vibrant downtown where residents live, work and play will bring his total to 365 residential units – single-handedly closing in on the goal of 500 that was set by the city during the early days of planning the redevelopment.
Bartram’s involvement in Moorhead dates back to several projects for Concordia College in the 1980s and 1990s, including the pedestrian overpass across Eighth Street South. His firm, Mutchler Bartram Architects, had been part of the downtown conference center floated by city leaders in 1993 but ultimately shot down by lack of investors and local opposition. “We had a handshake agreement with Eventide back then to buy the Fairmont Creamery from them and turn it into a hotel,” he notes. Though unsuccessful, that proposal brought him together with former mayor Morrie Lanning and economic development director Scott Hutchins – a civic connection that has continued to grow with their successors over the past 30 years.
Now his admiration of the century-old creamery has come full circle. His firm finally purchased the property in 2021. The newer half of Eventide’s assisted living complex has been torn down and is in the process of replacement with a new three-story structure that abuts the historic Fairmont. When complete, the historic portion will house 37 larger units, while the new structure will include 107 more modest apartments. “We wanted some variation in what will be available,” he explains, “instead of flooding the market with similarly priced units.”
The 1982 NDSU graduate’s first experience with Moorhead’s housing market was 30 years ago, when his company became involved in redevelopment of the Kassenborg Block and construction on three corners of the Main Avenue-Fourth Street crossroads just east of Memorial Bridge. “Our first building there had just 17 apartments, and the second had 22,” he remembers. “The largest was 128.” Eventually the Riverfront, Bridgeview, Woodlawn Lofts and Kassenborg area, plus additional buildings north of Main, came to 128.
Those projects have been followed by a steady stream of others. Bartram’s firm turned a decrepit old potato warehouse beside the railroad tracks at Center Avenue and 11th Street into the stylish Simon Lofts, taking advantage of the historical bones of the old structure. The company turned the site of the Moorhead Knights of Columbus into the 9Thirteen Lofts, then built Block 37 behind it. Two more properties are waiting in the wings – the former Orton’s service station at Main and 14th Street, and the landmark long known as the FM Hotel. He is waiting to find out whether the latter, a Mid-Mod classic from 1950, qualifies for historic preservation status. If so, it may become a boutique hotel; if not, more living units.
“When we got started in 1995, we weren’t sure of the demand for housing in Moorhead. We’re confident now,” Bartram says. The overall vacancy rate in his buildings is just 4%, considered a very healthy number. Too, he has found that turn-over of renters is lower here than in other parts of the metro area. “People who live in Moorhead stay in Moorhead,” he observes. “They’re very loyal.”
His showpiece, though, may be the Armory Event Center and the Armory Annex that’s underway next door. His company has transformed the 100-year-old National Guard Armory into a handsome, open facility for all kinds of public and private events. Work is underway on the John L. Whitnack building across the parking lot. When complete, it will be available to host smaller gatherings. Names of the meeting rooms in the Whitnack, he confides, should entertain long-time locals, sporting monikers like the Dirty Bird, the Blackhawk and the Belmont. The lot itself, dubbed Moonlight Alley (after Moorhead’s old outdoor theater), will host occasional outdoor events.
Since completing Brewhalla in Fargo last year, Bartram’s focus has been solidly fixed on Moorhead. With the exception of the J Street Apartments nearing completion on Fargo’s First Avenue North, all of his projects – current and prospective – have been on the east side of the river.
“There’s a perception that taxes and other costs make building in Minnesota less desirable,” he muses. “That’s not necessarily true in most cases. I think developers just get used to their own familiar market and may find moving across the river intimidating.”
The city’s big advantage over its North Dakota neighbors, he says, is the incentives it offers developers, as well as the people who have been leading development efforts since he began building here 30 years ago.
“The people I work with in the city of Moorhead go all out to make it possible for projects like these to happen. Over these many years, that has always been the case,” Bartram observes. “Moorhead has been consistently encouraging and helpful. Some other jurisdictions are not nearly as easy.”
He is especially enthusiastic about his newest endeavor at 650 Center will bring to the city: “I look at the downtowns wherever I go, and one thing always stands out. When you just have business and commercial, nothing happens at night. We’re building a real community here. When people can live, work and play downtown, everybody benefits.”

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