Courtesy Fargo Air Museum
Health care boosts economy
Despite the recession, Fargo’s economy has been stable. The strength of agriculture, plus two emerging markets, health care and education, keep the convention business healthy, and as both sectors see growth, Johnson sees potential for more meetings for Fargo.
Sanford Health is a major presence and will double its current 3,500 employees when it opens a new hospital in Fargo, he said.
Fargo is also the home of North Dakota State University. Moorhead is home to Concordia College and Minnesota State University Moorhead.
“One of the things that really surprised me is that within a mile and a half of downtown are 20,000 students,” said Hahn.
Holiday Inn dominates
Conference hotels suited to midsize meetings now serve the market. Downtown, there’s the boutique Hotel Donaldson (see sidebar, page 23) and the 151-room Radisson Hotel Fargo. In Moorhead, a 126-room Courtyard by Marriott has 10,000 square feet of meeting space.
But the dominant conference property is the Holiday Inn Fargo. When it was built 42 years ago, far from downtown near the intersection of interstates 29 and 94, “people scratched their heads and wondered ‘What the heck?’” said Prekel. Soon, a mall opened across the street. Today, the hotel enjoys 70 percent occupancy every day of the week, Prekel said.
Much of its success is due to owners who invest in upkeep and improvements. In April, a new pirate ship for the pool, bigger and better than its predecessor, awaited the move from snowy parking lot to indoor pool as workers finished a near-total renovation of 53 poolside guest rooms. Another 150 guest rooms will be renovated this summer; the remainder will be done next year.
Growing the FargoDome
What Fargo lacks is a large convention space. There’s talk of adding 50,000 square feet of meeting space to the FargoDome, Johnson said, and if that occurs, he believes developers would be interested in building an adjoining hotel.
In the meantime, Fargo has made do; when 4,500 Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the city, meetings were held in a new ice hockey facility, and attendees were shuttled to and from hotels.
Downtown is a destination
Downtown is an obvious destination for meeting goers. Forbes magazine named it one of the nation’s top 10 most-transformed neighborhoods based on the effects of $100 million in investments in the past 15 years.
North Dakota State has expanded into downtown from its main campus a couple of miles away; students and business professionals have moved downtown too, influenced by renovated properties and by the city’s success in making downtown a “quiet zone.” The 90 trains that pass through downtown on two tracks each day are now a rumble, rather than a cacophony of horns.
Downtown also offers venues: the 1926 Fargo Theatre, restored through an effort that was kick-started by the premiere of “Fargo” there in 1996; the Plains Art Museum; and the Avalon Events Center, a 105-year-old building that has been repurposed for receptions, dinners and other events.
Owner Tom Poole put $1 million into the restoration of the former Stone Piano Co. 14 years ago. As a youngster, he had taken trombone lessons in the building. Now, with three ballrooms and a number of smaller meeting rooms, the Avalon can handle multiple events simultaneously.
There are welcomed extras at this venue, such as a 53-person bus to shuttle guests back to the hotel after an evening of food and drink, and security at all events to ensure that guests from one event don’t work their way into another.
Poole also oversees events at the Hub, a multivenue event center that is the largest private event center between Minneapolis and Seattle, according to Poole. It is large enough to feed and entertain hundreds for large corporations such as Microsoft.
What the Avalon does with its wood floors, large windows and chandeliers, the Hub does with lighting. It sets a mood in one of its large, hulking venues by draping round tables in white and turning on the colored lights. It recently invested $1.1 million in new lighting and sound systems.