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More than cold weather and wood chippers: North Dakota State and Fargo turning heads with big things

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The questions are enough to make me want to reach into my computer bag and hurl a fist full of lutefisk at the offender. Because, being a good North Dakotan and all, I just so happen to carry a couple pounds of stinky fish with me if I ever need it. I keep it right next to the year-round tire chains you need to drive through 63 feet of snow, and, of course, the seemingly perpetual bottle of moonshine that gets me through those really cold winter nights. Uff da.

I better back up. Why in the name of Ole and Lena am I carrying around a stinky fish, and who am I throwing it at? Let’s start with every Kent Brockman at a national tournament that quips about the hinterlands of Fargo, cold weather, and, a wood chipper. It wouldn’t be overboard cliché if you didn’t joke about the wood chipper. And it’s not just misinformed journalists. I swear, half my clients from out-of-state start each phone call with a variety of this ear-piercing question: “how is the weather, is it snowing there.” Yep, sure is, it’s mid-July, but let me grab my North Face and boots and venture out into the great white beyond.

 

I’m a proud North Dakotan. Fiercely proud. Maybe too proud. I suppose that’s what happens when you’re fifth generation. It gets ingrained in your DNA. It’s what I know, it’s who I am. My great-great-parents boarded boats in Europe before Teddy Roosevelt was hunting the Badlands. They broke this prairie, helped make it the breadbasket of the world, struggled through the Great Depression and war, and yet, somehow, here I am, and here we are. I was born here, educated here, wouldn’t move for anything from here, and will be buried here one day.

So the comments about the weather get tiresome. The remarks about flyover country tedious. That’s why I feel the urge to pull all those questioners aside and scream, “Hey, buddy, have you ever been to North Dakota? It’s a pretty damn good place. It’s not always cold. You won’t find better people anywhere. You can sit at the lake and cast a line in the quiet if that’s your thing. Sample some world-class food at the HoDo or Mezzaluna then hop over to one of our local breweries. Or, try golfing at Bully Pulpit before taking in the Medora Musical. But if I hear one more word about the weather … uff da.”      

There are big things happening in Fargo, and the rest of North Dakota, that don’t involve blizzards and wood chippers. We sure aren’t the version portrayed by the Coen brothers in their 1996 cult movie hit. The real Fargo, N.D., home of North Dakota State, metro population 225,000, is a thriving economic and cultural powerhouse on the banks of the Red River. Oh, by the way, besides having the four-time defending FCS football champions, we’re home to a pretty good basketball team too, one that is emerging as a mid-major powerhouse. 

Despite falling short to Gonzaga 86–76 in the NCAA tournament, the Bison gave the ‘Zags all they could handle, and then some. After pushing their lead to 18 with 14:58 remaining, it looked like GU was going to run NDSU out of the gym. The Bison didn’t come to Seattle, Wash., for a blowout, though, and stormed back, cutting the lead to six with a real chance to win. While the Bison didn’t pull off the upset, there we were, on a national stage, going toe-to-toe, punch-for-punch, late in the second half with a team that many have to go to the Final Four. Make no mistake, Dave Richman and his staff are building something special in Fargo. 

I think that’s why I relate to this team and our university – why I identify so much with being a Bison. We don’t back down. We don’t buy into the background noise. We don’t accept the label “small school”, and we sure don’t accept any artificial glass ceilings the outside world may think we have being “up  here” on the 49th parallel. We’re proud of who we are. While some in the national media can’t resist moving beyond the woefully inaccurate stereotype painted by the Coen brothers, for those of us living in the real Fargo, we know who we are, and we know there are some big things happening. 

“There might be a perception nationally of Fargo, we don’t really care about that,” said Bison coach Dave Richman, himself a North Dakota native from Wahpeton, a quick 40-minute drive down I-29 from Fargo. “Our perception is we’re going to get tough-minded, selfless individuals that care way more about the team than they do themselves and then just work.” 

Consider that perception a reality. For the second straight March, our basketball team let the rest of America know there’s more, much more, to NDSU and Fargo than a wood chipper and cold weather. This basketball team has taken on the persona of its community, a community as vibrant as any you’ll find in this year’s tournament brackets. 

According to Forbes magazine, Fargo is the fourth fastest-growing small city in the United States. Livability.com, a website dedicated to showcasing America’s best places to live, ranked Fargo as one of the Top 100 Best Places to Live, and placed the city in its lists of Top 10 Best Cities for New College Grads and Top 10 Best Downtowns. Do an internet search and you’ll see that Fargo is in more Top 10, 50, and 100 lists of places to live, work, go to college, and raise a family as anyplace in the country. 

Here’s a sampling of what Livability had to say about one of the many jewels of the Peace Garden State. “The hub of one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country, Fargo, N.D., provides new college graduates with a booming job market, affordable housing and amenities for an active lifestyle. It’s also considered one of the safest places to live in the U.S.,” adding that, “newcomers are often surprised by the city’s thriving entertainment scene” and “the area’s many parks, trails and golf courses.”  They concluded with this high praise – “Fargo is becoming more of an ‘it’ spot every day.” 

Forbes and Livability are just a few of the many taking notice of a new Fargo, a Fargo that shatters the misconceived perceptions and stereotypes raised by the Coen brothers. The Coen brothers’ Fargo is about as close to reality as Kabul, Afghanistan is to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Men’s Journal named Fargo one of their “Best Places to Live” for, among other things, low taxes, low unemployment rates, clear air and quality of life. These articles universally praise downtown Fargo’s coffee shops, bars, restaurants, art galleries, and places like the iconic Fargo Theatre that line its busy streets.  

The story is getting out. It’s become so cool, one of ESPN’s biggest shows, College GameDay, has broadcast from downtown each of the past two years. Last September, ESPN’s Chris Fowler told the Associated Press that he, along with the rest of the GameDay crew, knew they’d be returning to Fargo as soon as their inaugural trip ended. This is how the show’s executive producer, Lee Fitting, described downtown Fargo. “This is a combination of ‘College GameDay’ meets Wrigley Field meets Champions League soccer intensity.” 

This support is not unique to Fargo. It permeates the rest of North Dakota and the Red River Valley. “There’s a tremendous attitude and selfless attitude within our Bison Nation, within Fargo, the state of North Dakota, the Red River Valley, the F-M area is just tremendous in the support we get,” Richman explained. “And the resources that come from that support, that help us get to it.” Richman is referring to the team’s new state-of-the-art practice facility, training center, and, of course, the $50 million renovation to their arena, scheduled to open the fall of 2016. 

The headline of a recent Forbes story sums things up, “No Joke: It Couldn’t get Much Better in Fargo.” Thanks to the region’s thriving technology, industrial, agricultural, health care, and energy sectors, “North Dakota leads the nation in virtually every indicator of prosperity,” and boasts “the highest rates of net in-migration, income growth, and job creation.” In 2014, wages rose an astounding 8.9 percent, twice as much as Texas and Utah, who shared second place honors among states. The national average for increase in wages, if you’re curious, is 1 percent. 

As this story gets out, and it’s getting out, any perceived disadvantages we have in recruiting will quickly become advantages. “Stick around,” concluded Richman. “The old saying: those who stay will be champions. In the recruiting game, to the kids, and I was just telling my father this the other day – we’ll promise you two things: it’s going to be a lot of hard work, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.” That mixture of hard work and fun in Fargo has worked pretty well. “You can see those efforts being rewarded by back-to-back NCAA tournaments.” 

And if you don’t believe me, you’re more than welcome to visit. In fact, maybe you should before next year’s tournament. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the real Fargo.   

More than cold weather and wood chippers: North Dakota State and Fargo turning heads with big things
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