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Harley Dengel of Dickinson walks back to his vehicle in downtown Dickinson on Wednesday. Dickinson and Williston officials and business owners are starting to put new life into the cities' downtown areas.

The heart of a city: Dickinson, Williston working to refurbish their downtowns

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In 1963, Petula Clark wanted the nation to "go downtown, things'll be great when you're downtown." Fifty years later, that's exactly where some Oil Patch officials and business owners want you to go.

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Dickinson and Williston officials are planning revitalization projects for their downtown areas as the populations of both cities grow.

On Tuesday night, the Williston City Commission lifted a six-month moratorium on new residential dwellings in downtown, said Rachel Ressler, staff planner for the city of Williston.

Before the boom, Williston had changed its ordinance to allow residential dwellings above, behind or below commercial buildings, but officials came to find that some were taking advantage of it and "man camps" were popping up downtown, she said.

"I think we're on the right track to solve those problems with those 'man-camp' issues," said Chuck Wilder, who has owned Books on Broadway with his late wife for 20 years.

The commission voted to only allow dwellings above buildings, Ressler said. Current residents will be grandfathered in.

"They are developing several buildings downtown -- the upstairs -- there's one building in particular where they're putting a couple of loft apartments up there," Wilder said. "We want to bring people downtown so they can live downtown and create a community down here."

A week before the Williston commission's decision, the Dickinson City Commission voted to begin accepting requests for qualifications for downtown revitalization.

Williston is doing the same, Ressler said.

Last fall Dickinson hired Gary Reddick of V3 Studios out of Portland, Ore., to help design and visualize changes that could happen downtown. Reddick had previously worked with the city of Minot as well as several other projects through the nation and world.

Part of Reddick's philosophy is to bring more people downtown and create mixed-use buildings.

"It gets started by getting people (to live) downtown," he said. "Once the retailers start to see that and they have the rooftops -- so to speak -- it starts to infill and you get the ball rolling."

Dickinson Commissioner Carson Steiner would like to see more mixed-use buildings, especially those that mix parking, business and residential.

"There's no reason that a retail operation couldn't come in, build on one of our lots and above their retail store have living quarters for their employees," he said. "We just gotta get thinking out of the box."

Downtown businesses in both Oil Patch communities are promoting and trying to grow their areas.

In Williston, proprietors have restarted their downtowners club, Wilder said. Businesses have hosted a downtown store-lit Christmas the past two winter seasons for families to shop downtown, similar to the Ladies' Night Out even in Dickinson. The Williston event has grown each year.

Downtown Williston also hosts a farmer's market; this summer will be the second year, he said.

"There really aren't any empty buildings downtown -- they're full," Wilder said. "It's very active. ... It's really picked up in the last three, four years. Williston has always had a very active, very strong downtown."

In Dickinson, part of the challenge is to get people to want to build up, not out, Steiner said.

"We're investing all kinds of money into areas of annexation for infrastructure. I think that now we can look into investing some of that money into our downtown area," he said. "Instead of having urban sprawl where it costs us money, let's go vertical."

Downtown revitalization will not happen overnight, but Steiner is excited that the city is taking up this issue now.

"If we don't do it now, with everything that's going on now, I don't think there's a better time that's going to become available for it," he said. "Our downtown is busy, our stores are thriving -- there's people here. Now's the time to do it."

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Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
(701) 456-1206
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