NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — We Built This City

My husband and I were taking a spin around our south-side Moorhead, Minn., neighborhood the other night, marveling at the new homes popping up all around us.

For block after block, on street after street, sod had been pushed back and basements were being dug. Earth movers were carving out new streets where corn and sugar beets grew just a year ago. Dragon-like boom pumps were squirting concrete into foundations and new driveways. Piles of roof trusses and lumber were stacked Lego-like on lots where single-family homes had been framed, and apartment skeletons were taking shape, and shingles were being stitched onto acres of brand-new rooftops. Rows of yard signs proclaimed “for sale,” and just as often, “sold.” The curbs were full of cars, while mountains of unpacked boxes peeked out of open garages.

He looked at me and said, “You know, we did that.”

Yes, Moorhead owes the lion’s share of today’s impressive growth surge to Russ, me … and the other 4,093 citizens who voted “yes” on a bond issue that seemed mind-blowingly ambitious ― some said whacko optimistic ― just 13 years ago.

And now, wonder of wonders, we have done it all over again.

On Tuesday, Moorhead was one of 37 Minnesota school districts to vote on capital bond issues ― and one of the 24, or 62.2 percent, that passed their measures. Our overwhelming vote on the $78.28 million levy to build and expand our schools won by what some observers are calling a record margin of 64 percent.

Meanwhile, East Grand Forks, Minn., voters also approved their own $20.6 million bond to renovate their senior high school, albeit by the slimmer margin more typical when citizens are asked to raise their own taxes.

Education advocates in two of our neighbors fared dramatically worse. Eighty-two percent of voters in the contentious Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton, Minn.,  district just to the east voted against their own measure, while Detroit Lakes, Minn., narrowly turned down a school expansion bond and squashed two additional measures to fund a new performing arts center and swimming pool by much more substantial margins.

Though most people say that they support education, convincing them to carry that theory into the voting booth has been a great deal dicier. All over our region, the coming burp in enrollments from kindergarten through 12th grade is prompting school boards to craft expansion plans … and voters to balk. While growing young populations are the holy grail of community development here on the prairie ― the plains that demographers all too recently suggesting turning back to the buffalo ― the consequences of that achievement can be surprisingly controversial.

When Russ and I moved to Moorhead in 1984, our home south of Interstate 94 was the next thing to genuinely rural. Killdeer built their nests just beyond our backyard fence. Rather than lawnmowers too early on Saturday morning, a tractor chugged up the street a couple times each summer to swath the empty blocks behind us, and we could almost see all the way to Sabin.

We’d moved to a city that had stalled. The east side ended at the Morningside Addition just across the ever-problematic railroad tracks. Not much was happening. The Moorhead School District’s numbers had fallen to their lowest point since 1961. Schools were being shuttered. The business sector was flat. Property values were flat.

Growth lagged far behind our neighbors in the Fargo-Moorhead metro area. Fargo and West Fargo, N.D., would each grow 22 percent in the ensuing 1990s, and little Dilworth, Minn., even posted 17 percent. But Moorhead’s population would actually fall by 118 people, almost half of 1 percent.

Not good ― not good at all. The narrative was one of attempt after failed attempt to turn the tide. The city sat around its sparse urbanly renewed downtown wasteland, chasing convention centers and other developments that failed again and again to materialize. It was still a good place to live. We grew oh so weary, though, of defending our turf when denizens of bigger, brawnier neighboring locales came by to kick sand in our faces.

So who rewrote the story? Turns out, we did it ourselves. Faced with the gloomy numbers, Moorhead voters still took a scary, bold step forward in 2002 ― voting to invest $68 million in new and improved school facilities.

The campaign was just as contentious as you could imagine. The vote was a cliff-hanger. Russ and I marked our ballots “yes” but held out little hope, anticipating that in the end we were likely accomplishing little more than a symbolic gesture. To our honest amazement, school supporters prevailed … if only by a scant 112 votes.

March 5, 2002. That was the day when today’s chapter of a dynamic, growing Moorhead really began. It chronicles a near-perfect case study of how civic investment in education can turn up the lights.

We ― every one of us who voted “yes” ― built this.

Today, proud ‘headers paint a rosy picture. A city that numbered barely 32,000 in the year 2000 could boast 38,065 in 2010 (+18.2 percent) and, according to sober census statisticians, 43,715 today ― another 15 percent in just five years. Some 4,000 single-family, apartment and condominium units have been issued building permits in the past half-dozen years. Values of existing homes have soared, and the real estate market is hot, hot, hot. Moorhead’s growth rate is actually exceeding the pace of the better-known Fargo and West Fargo booms … a nearly unimaginable prospect at the close of the 20th century.

What has inspired all these new families to choose Moorhead? You can hem and haw about all kinds of local and state factors that affect us for better or (often) worse, but the key is clearly this: Progressive, modern, well-sited schools. Our exemplary school system clearly has been driving the city’s dramatic residential growth ― not to mention new business enterprises like Sanford Clinic Moorhead, Menard’s, Sam’s Club and Hornbacher’s at Azool. Trace it all back to the investment we dared to make in the darker days a dozen years ago.

Every silver lining does seem to come wrapped in a cloud … in this case, coping with schools that are stuffed to popping at their seams. Last year, Moorhead High School graduated a class of 380. This September, 576 5 year olds showed up for kindergarten.

When people queue up at their polling places, you never really know what will happen. The 32 percent of Moorhead with children in the schools already understood all about crowded classrooms, kids studying in hallways, and the district’s emergency steps to stuff everything from janitors’ closets to office space with big, booming contingents of boisterous elementary kids.

But what about the large majority ― including Russ and me ― with no offspring riding the big yellow buses? Sixty-eight percent of ‘headers fall into that category. How would we define our own self-interest … schools for the city’s future, or cheaper taxes?

Long lines of voters Tuesday hinted something could be afoot. Even so, when the vote totals finally began to trickle out that night, they delivered as much gut-clenching suspense as the last minute of a come-from-behind football run for the end zone …

And then, finally, the scoreboard flashed success. Our neighbors roared a resounding “yes!”

If the dozen years since the last construction bond issue have taught us anything at all, it’s that a growing city richly repays the investment required to cultivate it. Step up to the plate and swing hard. Have the faith to build it, and ― as Hollywood promised in that famous 1989 movie about unlikely dreams ― perhaps they will come.

We did build this. They really did come … in greater numbers than anyone dared envision. And now, after Tuesday’s vote, our town can keep stretching toward the dream.

3 thoughts on “NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — We Built This City”

  • Kathleen Risch November 5, 2015 at 7:19 pm

    I think it is kind of a tragedy to cover some of the richest farmland in the world with housing. Just saying. …

  • Larry Gauper November 6, 2015 at 9:30 am

    Another excellent column and analysis, Nancy. Your piece causes me to think about our situation on the Fargo side, where most education spending has traditionally come from local property taxes. North Dakota, as has been the case in Minnesota for some time, is finally becoming more involved financially. The main reason the Fargo School District lost last year’s mill levy election was because the board has developed a reputation with the taxpayers of spending tax dollars thoughtlessly over many decades.

    Fresh in the minds of voters at election time was spending millions of Fargo taxpayer money on an amphitheater in Moorhead (Bluestem). Although Minnesota “gave” $5 million toward this project, the clear majority of construction and on-going financial support has come from Fargo property tax payers. The school board did this quickly, without a vote. This alone causes many of us on the Fargo side, paying high tax bills, to smolder.

    On top of that, a $45 million high school (Davies) was built without a vote. Why bother to ask the voters? They had the money – taxpayer money – in some sort of “building fund.” Huge mistake by the board. But voters finally got a chance to vote on a school issue – the levy cap – and their answer was a resounding NO! Now the Fargo board is afraid to go back to the voters, as they should be. The Forum or some news organization needs to do a comparison study of HOW each of the local school boards in our area spend taxpayer money. In talking with a current board member, there is a feeling that the Fargo system is top-heavy with expensive administration. I’m not against spending money on schools. I am against financing schemes that are not carefully thought-out with the property tax payers in mind, as well as what’s best for students and teachers.

  • Barbara La Valleur November 6, 2015 at 3:12 pm

    Nanc-Great blog. We’ve always voted “yes” for school bond issues. Even though, like you & Russ, we have no relatives nor do we even know anyone attending Richfield Schools (though we live in Edina, we’re in the Richfield School District) we wouldn’t think of not voting for better schools. It’s our future. Sadly, only about 30% of people voted Tuesday.


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