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McFeely: Moorhead needs to think big to fill Herberger's hole

Customers walk into the Herberger's store at the Moorhead Center Mall on Wednesday, April 18. The Moorhead and Fargo locations are set to close. Forum file photo

MOORHEAD — It is time for Moorhead to think big, perhaps bigger than it's dared think before.

Does that mean anything fruitful will come of trying to fill the black hole left behind by the Herberger's store in the Moorhead Center Mall going out of business? Certainly not, but for some reason the death of Herberger's seems like a critical moment and one that can't pass without a major reaction.

Term the effort "last gasp" or "Hail Mary" and you might not be wrong, because from the outside looking in there's a whiff of desperation for downtown Moorhead and the Center Mall (even more than normal) with the demise of the mall's anchor tenant. Herberger's was a Moorhead place, one of the few, that Fargoans would cross the Red River to frequent.

Early Sunday opening hours and no tax on clothing has its benefits. Minnesota has more advantages than NoDaks want to admit.

What comes next? What could come next?

Try this on for size: A performing arts center.

Don't laugh. The idea here is to think big and there are few ways Moorhead could think bigger than to turn the Center Mall space into a riverfront gem that Fargo keeps talking about but never quite seems to take action on.

A $50 million or $60 million or $70 million performing arts center — symphonies, musicals, concerts, ballet — right across the river from downtown Fargo would be a game-changer for little ol' Moorhead. Downtown would immediately transform into a center for restaurants, bars, nightlife and small-scale retail.

It would be the biggest thing to happen to Moorhead since Matt Cullen filled the Stanley Cup with Snickers Blizzard at the Dairy Queen on 8th Street and Main Avenue. Maybe even bigger.

It's an expensive and probably unrealistic dream, sure, but there's no reason to dream small. Bulldoze the Center Mall and build the dang thing right there.

"I have heard that as an option," Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams said. "Not out of the question."

Wait, what? Moorhead is ready to think to that scale?

"We have been working with Derrick (LaPoint, of Downtown Moorhead Inc.) and Cindy (Graffeo, of the Moorhead Economic Development Association), who have been having some fruitful discussions with a number of developers," Williams said. "We are ready to go big. We are open to a City Hall move if a good plan comes together."

Be still our hearts. Moorhead's City Hall is part of the Center Mall and to move it would take some imagination, but it would fit with the theme of thinking big.

The mayor says that's not all.

"In May, we will change a piece of our Urban Progress Zone incentives. They are the result of some good discussions with developers," Williams said. "With the high costs in Fargo, developers are very interested in projects in Moorhead."

So if not a performing arts center, perhaps something else big and bold. And hopefully very different from the 1970s vibe of the current mall and Herberger's space.

Like, maybe, wiping out the entire mall and rebuilding a "real" downtown. Kind of like in the Twin Cities suburb of Maple Grove, where developers basically built a downtown out of thin air.

"There's all kinds of things that could happen, but it's going to take some money and it's going to take the right kind of deal," said LaPoint, the Downtown Moorhead Inc. guy who's been on the job for all of two months. "And it's going to take an awful lot of collaboration to move toward some type of end game."

LaPoint raised the idea of razing Herberger's and starting over. He also talked of breaking up the big-box space into smaller parcels. But, he was quick to point out, the Herberger's space is privately owned and it's up to those who own it to decide what to do with it.

A phone call to one representative of ownership, Patrick Vesey of Goldmark Commercial Real Estate, was not immediately returned.

"It's a large store, and we don't want to see it sit empty for a long period of time," LaPoint said. "We want to create some action. It's all about creating places and spaces where people want to be and having a great experience."

Like, for example, a performing arts center.

Or an entirely new downtown.

Something big. Something bold. It's Hail Mary time. Go for it.

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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