Originally published in the May 2022 issue of Prairie Business Magazine
Written By Andrew Weeks
When it comes to attracting and retaining employees in these momentous times of workforce challenges and demands, companies are doing what they can to stand out by offering an inviting work-life balance and culture experience.
Often, part of that equation is location – and for Dan Altenbernd, managing partner at H2M, that means downtown Fargo.
It’s a place that has worked well for business and is a place he intends to stay. One reason is because he believes the location of the company, an ad and marketing firm with clients across the upper Midwest, helps attract employees and motivates them in their creativity.
“The location actually is part of our culture,” he said.
Altenbernd, who has worked in some capacity downtown for about 20 years, likes promoting the area and in recent months joined the Downtown Community Partnership, a community organization that goes beyond promoting traditional retail and special events to take on development challenges facing downtown.
“I did that because I am such a proponent of what’s happening down here,” he said. “What I personally like about downtown Fargo is the vibrancy and vitality. It is the walkability (to other businesses and venues). That might seem cliche to many people, but I love the options that downtown has to offer the office worker.” Those offerings are much more than the nearby food and beverage amenities – though that’s a plus, too.
“I think food and beverage gets oversold when we talk about downtown,” he said. “There is so much camaraderie in the downtown community that I completely enjoy. I feel like it might cost me a little more to be here, but that’s an investment I choose to make because I believe that being downtown actually attracts talent.”
Kilbourne Group has helped many businesses set up shop in the downtown area, including such projects as the Kesler and Mercantile, both high-brow multi-use projects at the heart of downtown.
Mike Peschel, Kilbourne’s managing broker and commercial asset manager, said anyone can create their own unique office setting and make it as inviting as they like, but a common theme he is noticing is that people are seeking built-in amenities close to the office.
“In the downtown setting, what people are showing a lot of interest in is the idea that all of the amenities are already around. They’re already there,” he said. “So when people are looking for an office, they’re saying, ‘Hey, we can make the office look like whatever we want. But we got 40 or 50 food and beverage coffee-shop type options surrounding us. We have the ability to network with people just on the streets, walking from meeting to meeting.’
“It becomes more of an opportunity for your business to thrive in a different environment than it would if it was in another area of town or a little farther away. When you’re driving from meeting to meeting you’re not interacting with people every day.”
Peschel said Kilbourne Group keeps tabs on what’s happening downtown, works closely with its clients, and is doing its part to keep Fargo an inviting place to live and work. With so many innovative minds downtown, he believes the vibrancy that many people mention will continue into the foreseeable future. And, he said, it will only get better.
That means it likely will continue to attract new businesses and talent to the scene.
“You can build an office in the middle of a farmstead and while there make it the coolest space in the world,” he said. “But you’re not surrounded by anything else that would be considered vibrant and walkable and cool.”
In Fargo, he said, a business gets all of that and more.
“You have all of these other amenities that are right around you,” he said. “I think there was a vision 20 years ago (of what downtown could be) and we’re trying to continue that vision and find out what the next project is that makes sense and to fill any voids, any gaps. We’re trying to see it all the way through: ‘Why does Fargo stick out from the next closest similar-sized town? Why would someone choose Fargo over that?’”
Tara May knows why: Not only is downtown Fargo vibrant with its array of shops, restaurants, and entertainment options, but it is attracting like-minded individuals, companies that are on the cutting edge of technology and change. People are innovative and they are able to meet easily, feeding off each other’s creativity and ambitions.
May is vice president of communications and external affairs at R.D. Offutt Farms, a family-owned and operated potato farm headquartered in Fargo but with stores in several states. The company is enjoying its new building downtown, where some 400 employees work. To make that happen, it consolidated four offices into one.
She said the company has always been a great place to work, but the new building and its downtown location helps cultivate an environment that encourages collaboration and teamwork.
“We’re located right downtown, so there’s a lot of vibrancy right outside,” she said, noting the building’s floor plan is one of transparency that is accentuated with conference rooms and smaller collaboration spaces. Technology plays a big part in its operations, and team members can virtually meet with colleagues farther away.
The building has a fifth-floor cafe and commons area “with beautiful views of the Fargo Theater and of downtown,” May said. “We think that there are a lot of exciting things happening in downtown Fargo, and as far as cultural and social events that take place in this area, we are at the center of all of it.”
Outside the office is Broadway Plaza, where programs of different varieties take place all year long. In winter there’s an ice skating rink, and in the summer it might be used for movies or live performances. “There are many nights out of the week where there’s something happening downtown and people are sort of excited and motivated by that energy,” she said.
That energy crosses into the daily grind at the office, making it not seem so burdensome or routine. It helps spark creativity just being in that environment, she said.
The draw to downtown Fargo has been happening for years, according to Joe Raso, president and CEO of the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation. But its popularity has only grown. He said it is a benefit for many businesses to have a downtown presence.
“Years ago, I had a CEO of a manufacturing company that was going to locate in the industrial park in the community I represented and he asked about the development in downtown, which was not where his business was locating,” Raso said. “I asked why his interest in downtown and he said, ‘Your downtown is the heart of your community, and it says a lot about how you feel about yourself if you focus on and take care of your downtown.’
“That has always stuck with me, and while we visit with companies in the greater Fargo-Moorhead area, I hear frequently the importance of the downtown to their business even though most aren’t located downtown. They say it is hugely important to their recruitment of talent into the region.”
For Altenbernd and his team at H2M, being downtown helps feed the creative spirit, he said, and it attracts like-minded individuals and businesses where they can feed off each other’s energy. That’s a bonus for the ad firm and its clients.
As downtown continues to evolve, so does H2M. It is starting to attract clients closer to home.
“I would say 65% of our clients aren’t even in our area, but we make an impact,” Altenbernd said. “We’ve actually gained a lot of local clients here just in the first quarter of this year, which is really rare for us.”
Not all of H2M’s team works in the office; some still work remotely, and Altenbernd said plans are in the works to move into a smaller building. But he doesn’t expect to ever move out of downtown. The location has become part of company culture, as much as it is for some companies to throw holiday parties.
“I’ve said before, I’ve said it for years, that to retain people – and when you bring people in if they happen to be from a different part of town or even out of town – downtown Fargo is attractive,” he said, noting the winters are not always fun “but we’ve got five and a half months that is quite enjoyable. And if you’ve had a hard day, you’re only 20 steps away from a cocktail.”
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