Verner column: Touching base with Fargo’s mayor

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 14, 2009

Mayor Dennis Walaker will toss out the first pitch when the American Legion World Series gets under way today in Fargo, N.D., but first he’d like to make a little pitch for his fair city.
Sure, with an annual snowfall of 40 inches, winters can be “a little difficult” in Fargo, he acknowledges … and there is that average January high of 16 degrees. But visitors from Salisbury should be assured: While late May flurries aren’t unknown in Fargo, it doesn’t snow there in August. So no need to pack the mittens and parkas. With highs in the upper 80s or low 90s this weekend, shorts and T-shirts will do fine, and the lower humidity (around 40 percent) will be a welcome break from the tongue-lolling swelter of the Piedmont.
“We have four distinct seasons,” says Walaker, a native of Fargo. “Spring is nice and summer is nice. Fall is extremely nice.”
Along with great baseball-watching weather, the mayor says visitors can expect to enjoy a progressive, vibrant city of about 95,000 that belies the stereotypical images of gritty streets and wind-swept tundra created by movies such as “Fargo” (practically none of which, he notes, was actually filmed there).
As a Fargo corporate Web site wryly observes: “We have running water. We have automobiles. We even have that new World Wide Web thing.”
In fact, the mayor’s snapshot description of Fargo brings up several parallels to Salisbury, 1,376 miles away. Fargo is a college town (North Dakota State University), which means it experiences an influx of younger residents in late summer and fall, with a burgeoning club scene. It has relatively low crime rates and housing costs. Like Salisbury, it touts its historic downtown as a great place to browse quaint shops or take a self-guided walking tour. There, you can visit the Plains Art Museum, the renovated 1926-era Fargo Theatre (home base for the annual Fargo Film Festival) or have a look at some former office buildings being converted to condominiums as the city encourages more downtown living.
“Downtown is going through something of a rebirth,” Walaker says. “We’re renovating some of the older buildings into living quarters for ’empty nesters.’ ”
Like Salisbury and Spencer, Fargo also has a powerful connection to railroads. Fargo was originally founded as Centralia in 1871 by the Northern Pacific Railway as a key transportation and marketing point for the wheat-rich region. Today, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe main line still threads across Fargo, with up to 70 trains clacking through per day. That’s a lot of locomotion, and it would be a lot of noise, too, if the city hadn’t gotten the train operators to lay off the horns as they pass through Fargo. Trumpeting trains in the middle of the night aren’t a good selling point for downtown residential units being marketed to downsizing couples, he notes.
“As people get older, the train horns sound louder.”
In one key area, however, Fargo and Cass County stand in sharp contrast to Salisbury and Rowan. Although some Fargo-area manufacturing concerns haven’t escaped the economic turmoil, Walaker says the region’s agribusiness- and energy-based (coal and oil) economy has weathered the downturn relatively well. As of June, North Dakota had the nation’s lowest unemployment rate, 4.2 percent, compared with a nationwide average of 9.5 percent ó and 11 percent in North Carolina.
“Right now, our economy is still pretty good,” he says. “We’re a pretty conservative group. Our banks didn’t get involved in the kind of loans” that eroded the balance sheets and derailed credit at many financial institutions.
This is Fargo’s fourth time hosting the Legion series since 1983, and it brings a new venue. The site has shifted from Jack Williams Stadium, the local Legion team’s home park, to Newman Outdoor Field, the home stadium for the Fargo-Moorhead Red Hawks, built in 1996 on the N.D. State University campus.
“It’s like a miniature Yankee Stadium,” Walaker says.
The RedHawks are an independent league baseball team representing Fargo and its sister city across the Red River in Minnesota. Along with the architectural resemblance to Yankee Stadium, there’s also a historic tie: Fargo native Roger Maris played for the Fargo-Moorhead Twins in the 1950s before ascending to greatness in Yankee pinstripes.
While North Dakota doesn’t have a team in the competition this year, Walaker appreciates the excitement the Rowan Legion team is generating back home.
“That’s one of the great things about Legion ball,” he says. “If you have a Cinderella team, it gives the whole town a chance to be behind it. It’s wonderful for the community.”
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Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.