Photo courtesy of  Discover Holland

Photo courtesy of Discover Holland

50.3% to 49.7%. That was the result of the matchup between Holland, Michigan and Fargo, North Dakota - the closest first round matchup in our Strongest Town competition.

Having lived in Fargo at one time and currently being up the road from there, I was quite intrigued by this matchup. 

I am not as familiar with Holland. I have spent a decent amount of time in Michigan, but have never had the opportunity to visit the tulip city. I must say, after reading about it and checking out the place on Google Streetview, I definitely want to visit! This is a community with a beautiful downtown and some good bones. Not only that, but it is clear that the community has a ton of spirit and people get involved. 

The Kilbourne Group, a prolific developer in downtown Fargo that helped with their Strongest Town submission, published a blog post congratulating Holland on their victory. In it, they compared the two cities’ submissions. The following is an excerpt from the article:


Improved transportation, active community, strong downtown, and strategic planning

  • Fargo’s public bus system, Matbus, has tripled its ridership since 2004. The area’s 22,000 college students ride for free with a college ID.
  • Fargo also is becoming an increasingly more bikeable city. Fargo added 40 miles of dedicated, on street bike lanes since 2010, including North Dakota’s first raised, protected bike lane. Fargo’s Great Rides Bike Share doubled the national record of bike share programs with over 142,000 rides in 7 months with 100 bikes.
  • Public events like Streets Alive encourage people to get outside and be active. Fargo held its first annual Frostival, a winter festival where the community embraces the cool of winter with outdoor games and family friendly activities.
  • Properties in Fargo’s downtown Renaissance Zone that were valued at $190M in 2002 are now valued at over $600M. Many incremental improvement projects have been undertaken, such as corridor improvements (1-way to 2-way street conversions) and utilizing mixed-use buildings, helping to triple the number of residents downtown.
  • Fargo has also adopted the GO2030 comprehensive plan to set major goals for the Fargo Metro area by the year 2030.
  • Fargo is resilient to flooding in the Red River Valley. Communities come together to take action through sandbagging efforts, diversion planning and other flood protection measures.


Complete streets, multi-modal friendly, successful youth programs, and strategic planning

  • With a population of 33,000 people, Holland, Michigan is a strong town known for its annual Tulip Time festival, which has been ranked as America’s third-largest town festival and named Reader’s Digest’s best small town festival.
  • Holland prides itself on its complete streets and walkable neighborhoods with 150 miles of sidewalks that were recently supplemented by over eight miles of boardwalks, bike paths, and bike lanes.
  • These complete streets are uniquely winter-friendly as well. Holland has the largest re-use of wasted heat municipal Snowmelt system in the country. This asset enables year-round walking, running and biking, enhancing the overall livability downtown.
  • All neighborhoods are well lit with LED low-wattage, downward-directed lights. All crosswalks are painted annually. Significant efforts, including $640,000 in expenditures, have improved pedestrian crossings and added sidewalks to major intersections in the last two years.
  • The City is a partner with a full-service mass transit transportation agency (MAX) and public transit ridership is up nearly 100% in the last decade.
  • Three focus groups have been organized to support at-risk youth. They found that jobs and mentorships are the best way to combat gang recruitment.
  • A Sustainability Committee has been created in Holland. Community input led to establishing a forty-year Community Energy Plan which outlines how Holland will reduce its per capita carbon footprint by 60%—from 24 tons per capita to 10 tons per capita—by 2050. Seven citizen-led task forces were created and a comprehensive sustainable-return-on-investment process determined natural gas was the source for new power generation.

A tale of two cities

Fargo is a tale of two cities - a Jekyll and Hyde as a friend described it. The downtown is fantastic. ESPN Gameday cannot get enough of the place. I’ve written about how they have managed to see robust growth while getting rid of minimum parking requirements. 

ESPN GameDay in Fargo. Credit: DCP

ESPN GameDay in Fargo. Credit: DCP

Not only is the downtown being developed in a very walkable and mixed-use fashion that would warm any urbanist’s heart, but it is becoming an economic powerhouse. There are over 11,000 people working downtown and over 4,000 students and faculty at North Dakota State’s downtown campus. When Fortune magazine hailed Fargo as America's most under-valued tech hub, most of the story centered on Downtown Fargo. Entrepreneurs are embracing the downtown. It is where they have their co-working space, where they host their enormous TEDx event, One Million Cups, Start-up Week and a number of other budding ventures. This is a dynamic local economy in action. 

Then there’s the other side. A few years ago, a new high school was built at 70th Ave S, well beyond existing development. It had a walk score of zero. Recently, the Metropolitan Council of Governments released their Southwest Fargo Area Plan which proposes $150 million in spending and development stretching to 100th Ave S. Much of the spending is proposed for new projects on the fringe including a new bridge over I-29 at 64th Ave S and a new interchange at 76th Ave S. For context, currently the interchange furthest south in Fargo is at 52nd Ave S. In other words, the Growth Ponzi Scheme is alive and well in south Fargo.

Value per acre, tax revenue per acre and cost of pipe and road infrastructure for select parcels in Fargo (top two are downtown, bottom two are in the south-end).

Value per acre, tax revenue per acre and cost of pipe and road infrastructure for select parcels in Fargo (top two are downtown, bottom two are in the south-end).

Downtown Fargo and the surrounding pre-WWII neighborhoods do very well when looking at Strong Towns principles and the strength test. On the other hand, south Fargo is being developed in a manner that breaks with these principles. It is not being developed in a way that will ensure financial solvency. Land is being squandered instead of being utilized as a wealth building platform. 

This leads to some interesting questions in regard to the Strongest Town contest: Is a city the sum of all of its parts or only as strong as its weakest link? Can the growth in the downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods generate enough revenue to offset the financial drain created by the long-term obligations of the suburban style pattern of development in south Fargo? Should it have to?

These are important questions. I'm happy to report that the people of Fargo are starting to tackle these questions. In a future post, I'll dive into the conversation taking place in the community. It's fascinating and I think something other communities will find interesting.  

You can find Kilbourne Group's original post as well as many other posts highlighting local conversations on our member blogroll.