While in Bismarck on Saturday night, I decided it was time for Sarah and I to try something different and move our palettes beyond the growingly bland chain restaurants we have eaten at too many times.
When I started looking for a different place to eat and surprise her with, my first thought was to look up dining in downtown Bismarck. That’s when I came up with the Toasted Frog. I had heard a lot about it, but had never been there — much like many of the dining spots in our capital city’s downtown.
Before Saturday, I had never been in Bismarck’s downtown and thought, “Wow, what a cool atmosphere.” Despite rain, people were out and about and the place was vibrant. The Toasted Frog had great food, and the restaurant and its surrounding streets provided something we don’t have much of in Dickinson — a vibrant downtown atmosphere.
Then, almost on cue, Dickinson Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cooper Whitman showed up at Kiwanis Club on Tuesday to give a short presentation about what’s going on in the city. He spent much of his time talking about how Dickinson is trying to revitalize its downtown through a recently formed association.
The group of individuals, who were the subject of a July 19 story in The Press, are in the beginning stages of determining how downtown Dickinson can best be revitalized by adding more shopping, eating, entertainment and living opportunities, as well as making it a more vibrant and welcoming place for residents and visitors.
It’s a great idea, but it won’t come without challenges.
A thought that immediately came to my mind was that at least two downtown buildings with huge potential sit mysteriously vacant — the old Elks building and Jordheim Plaza — and if you revitalize a downtown, its two biggest buildings can’t be vacant.
When I asked Whitman what the biggest challenge organizers will face as they move forward with revitalizing downtown Dickinson, his answer was two-fold.
First, as expected, he said securing financing and investors for projects is naturally the first hurdle. Though with the rate Dickinson is growing and attracting business interests, and with the recent trend of Americans wishing to return to downtown, it appears to be an issue that can be handled.
Second, he said getting property and business owners on the same page could be the most difficult part.
There is no doubt that as Dickinson’s downtown starts getting a makeover, there are going to be holdouts, feet draggers and penny pinchers. You can’t have revitalization without an effort to beautify downtown, which often comes at the expenses of taxpayers and property owners. That means in order to get the project off the ground, some of the association’s wish-list items will probably need to be axed.
So what will it take to get Dickinson’s downtown humming again?
If you haven’t noticed, it’s already getting there as new businesses try taking advantage of our booming economy.
For Dickinson’s downtown revitalization to be successful and long lasting, however, it must rely on three absolutes all cities with vibrant downtowns have — food, booze and atmosphere. Aside from decent parking options, of course.
Take Fargo as an example. Its downtown has been vibrant for more than a decade. Why? Because some forward-thinking individuals decided to replace many of what you might call scummy elements and stores with places people actually wanted to go to and apartments and condos where people wanted to live.
People of all ages viewed small eateries, stores, boutiques, theatres and a remodeled hotel as hip, and soon Fargo’s downtown gained national attention.
Dickinson already has a good start on a downtown that could gain, at the very least, statewide attention.
There’s a trendy corner spot to eat and drink in the Brickhouse Grille. In the same area are Bogey’s Diner and Stix N’ Twigs, two restaurants that somehow remain hidden gems to many in our community.
There are plenty of places to get a drink downtown too and while it may pain some of you to read this, if you build a place in the upper Midwest that serves alcohol, people will find you.
If, just hear me out here, the city of Dickinson were to open more liquor licenses with the expressed condition that those licenses be used downtown, then you could see the area turn into a smaller version of what Fargo, Bismarck and Rapid City, S.D., have now — the place to be on Friday and Saturday nights.
Those cities, as well as Bismarck, also hold special events throughout the year to keep bringing people back to downtown. Dickinson has already taken a step toward that with Alive@5 on Thursday nights in the summer months and the Bernie’s Esquire street parties during Roughrider Days. With a revitalized downtown, you could see festival opportunities expand.
As Whitman closed out his presentation to Kiwanis, he said the hope is if someone were to move away from Dickinson for five years and return, downtown would be unrecognizable to them.
The city is on the right track to making that happen. But it will take the people of Dickinson embracing some proactive and creative ideas for it to come together in a positive way.