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Biggest cities in Dakotas find downtowns booming -- with similarities and uniqueness

FARGO -- Zandbroz Variety owner Greg Danz said he's simply a survivor in the ever-growing downtown Fargo. Yet he and his brother, Jeff, are perhaps much more than that as their stores in the heart of the two largest cities in the Dakotas were amo...

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Brittany Christensen, assistant manager of Lot 2029 in downtown Sioux Falls, said the store there has been open for two years. It has a similar look to the store in downtown Fargo. (Photo by Barry Amundson/Forum News Service)

FARGO -- Zandbroz Variety owner Greg Danz said he’s simply a survivor in the ever-growing downtown Fargo.

Yet he and his brother, Jeff, are perhaps much more than that as their stores in the heart of the two largest cities in the Dakotas were among the first in a downtown revival in both Fargo and Sioux Falls that has slowly -- but surely -- evolved during the past 25 years.

In recent years, it’s been more of an explosion with new businesses and residential units, among other attractions.

The Danz brothers opened the South Dakota store in 1989, then two years later, Greg Danz opened the store in North Dakota in the city where four of his sisters lived.

Twenty five years later, the Danzes are going strong and admiring what they see around them.

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When Greg Danz arrived in downtown Fargo, about the only retailers were a men’s clothing store and a few jewelers.

“It was a wreck down here,” he said.

It was the same story in Sioux Falls with rundown buildings, few stores and little chance to find a decent apartment or condo -- or even attractive office space.

Times have changed and the two downtowns have many similarities, but also their own uniqueness and attractions.

“Every downtown is different,” said Mike Hahn, the executive director of the Downtown Fargo Community Partnership.

The metro populations of both cities are close:  Sioux Falls’ at 243,721 (165,974 for the city) and Fargo at 233,736 (113,658 city).

The main streets of the two cities are Broadway in Fargo and Phillips Avenue in Sioux Falls that are lined with restaurants, bars, coffee shops, quirky and stylish boutiques, offices and higher-end apartment and condos. There are about 170 stores, bars and restaurants in downtown Fargo with about 110 in Sioux Falls -- and more on the way.

What’s missing are the chain stores and restaurants  -- found in both cities in the malls along Interstate 29 and in strip malls spread throughout the towns.

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Then there’s the people -- with about 15,000 people working in downtown Sioux Falls and about 12,000 in Fargo although about another 3,800 North Dakota State University students and faculty are also in the mix.

Sticking around for more of the day and night are about 5,000 people living in downtown Fargo, with at least 2,300 living in the heart of Sioux Falls.

Similarities are many

The similarities between the two downtowns are probably the most evident in privately owned stores found on the main streets in both cities.

In addition to Zanbroz, other stores found in both downtowns are the trendy Unglued art consignment shops, the glitzy Lot 2029 women’s boutique and the popular JL Beers hamburger and beer hideaway -- and others are considering similar expansions, according to business owners.

Just as in Fargo, Unglued and Zandbroz are neighbors in Sioux Falls.

Unglued owner Ashley Morken’s store in Sioux Falls is about twice as big as the Fargo site, but both are attracting customers looking for unusual items made by artists in the region.

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“It’s traditional work with a modern twist,” said Morken’s store manager in Sioux Falls, Ashley Rieck.

Morken said in Fargo she sees more tourists or parents and other family members of the thousands of college students. In Sioux Falls, with fewer college students, she said it’s more families and visitors from surrounding towns.

At Lot 2029, it’s also about expanding the brand -- as Hope Wald Goldhammer has taken her first store in Fargo to not only Sioux Falls, but also Bismarck.

Brittany Christensen, the assistant manager in Sioux Falls, said their expansion has allowed them to purchase on a larger scale.

Residents enjoy atmosphere

With the revival of the downtowns, residents are finding many and different things to enjoy.

In Sioux Falls, DJ Benthin, 24, and her 3-year-old daughter, Isla, were enjoying the sights and a cupcake on a “not too busy” Friday afternoon.

“I like all of the quirky shops,” said Benthin, a Sioux Falls resident who is attending South Dakota State University in Brookings.  

The architecture student said she was also taking a note of the “fascinating buildings” found in the downtown as well as the sculptures found on the area’s Sculpture Walk.

“I think the buildings are the best in South Dakota, especially the cathedral,” she said about the Catholic church on the outskirts of the downtown.

Jenelle Sigler, a four-year city resident from the suburbs of Chicago, was taking her family members on the tour of downtown, including a walk along the Big Sioux River that flows through the heart of the city and offers scenic waterfalls on the northern edge of downtown in Falls Park.

“We’re just being tourists,” Sigler said. “We’ve never been on the walk along the river, but I’m just showing them the coolest things in town.”

Back in Fargo, Tori Luck who works at the downtown Toasted Frog restaurant and bar was enjoying an early dinner with her boyfriend Matt Dostal at the Vinyl Taco just off Broadway.

Dostal said he sees the downtown “really growing and modernizing.”

Luck believes the heart of Fargo is booming and “it’s only going to get bigger.”

In her two years at the Toasted Frog, she said she has seen “friendly competition” between the other restaurants and bars.

“We really all kind of work together,” she said to make the downtown more of an attraction.

Joe Batcheller, the executive director of Downtown Sioux Falls Inc., who recently returned to his hometown of Sioux Falls from a job as a planner in Vail, Colo., said they call that cooperative spirit “co-opetition.”

He’s seeing nothing but an “upward trajectory” in his first months on the job as cities across the nation are focusing more on their urban cores.

Batcheller said many younger people and even some empty nesters are “craving the interaction with others” who have the same interests in a “downtown community.”

It’s a far cry, he said, from earlier times when many were fleeing to the suburbs, and perhaps lacking a more connected community.

Hahn, who has headed the Fargo Downtown Partnership for six years, couldn’t agree more.

He added “young professionals” to the list living in downtowns, too -- those who have “like interests and aspirations”

“I think they like the walkable environment where they can socialize in coffee shops and clubs in the downtown,” Hahn said.

Not only that, but the businesses in the downtowns are also seeking that cooperative spirit as they work on events and attractions to attract more people.

What’s ahead

Both Batcheller and Hahn are excited about the futures of their downtowns, although they both have some wish lists.

In Sioux Falls, Batcheller said a recent downtown hotel project fell through but another bid proposal with the city is being worked on. He also sees a need for more downtown housing and said about 85 more units are in the planning stage downtown.

The city also is still hoping to finally open its State Theater -- a historic downtown structure similar to the Fargo Theatre.

Meanwhile in Fargo with a new hotel-corporate headquarters-retail high-rise approved in the middle of downtown,  Hahn and others think of it as the topping on the cake for the revival, but his wish list is still probably a little longer than Batcheller’s.

Hahn said Sioux Falls seems to have a few more amenities that he would like to see in Fargo, including a performing arts center and development along the river.

In Sioux Falls, they took an old downtown high school and turned it into a popular performing arts and science center with a surround sound and sight theater with a  60-foot wide, four-story screen. In Fargo, there’s hopes for a possible similar center in the old Civic Center.

As for the river walk, there’s little that can be done in downtown Fargo until the flood-control work is done.

That leaves Hahn a little envious of the falls and trails along the river in downtown Sioux Falls, including a connection to a bike trail that encircles the city.

“We would like to integrate the river more into the downtown,” Hahn said. He thinks a master plan being developed for downtown that takes in the areas beyond Broadway and Main Street will help in that effort.

Meanwhile, Danz is excited with even the developments in his own block with the recent additions of guitar and bike shops, to go along with Unglued and an handmade gift and art gallery called c.lizzy’s.

The Zanbroz store also isn’t forgetting its past with a slogan they enjoy today -- “Downtown -- before it was cool.”


An almost 50-year veteran of the newspaper business, Amundson has worked for The Forum and Forum News Service for 15 years. He started as a sport reporter in Minnesota. He is currently the city and night reporter for The Forum. bamundson@forumcomm.com 701-451-5665
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