Minot, North Dakota: Small city, checkered past, bright future

The 2011 flood waters completely engulfed the downtown, the historic district and the zoo. Photo from the National Guard Helicopter tour.

The 2011 flood waters completely engulfed the downtown, the historic district and the zoo. Photo from the National Guard Helicopter tour.

by Steven J. Borjeson, Minot, North Dakota

Hit with a devastating flood in 2011 and trying to address the impacts of an oil boom, the last few years have been trying for this small town. However, the outlook for Minot is looking brighter with planning, investment, and numerous changes in the city’s governmental structure paving the way.

History of the Magic City

Muus Corral in downtown Minot in the early 1900s. Photo courtesy of historian Dave Lehner, who operates the minotmemories.com.

In 1886, when the advancement of the railroad came to a halt for the winter after complications arose with the construction of a bridge, a tent town of around 5,000 people sprung up almost overnight. Nestled in the Souris River Valley, it was the end of the line for the Great Northern Railway. As the train arrived in town, the conductor yelled out, “This is the end of the line, Minot. This is Minot, North Dakota; prepare to meet your doom.”

Minot was officially coined “The Magic City” because it appeared, as if by magic, in the middle of nowhere. Located 50 miles from Canada’s southern border, Minot is one of the most northern and remote micropolitan areas of the lower 48 states. (A micropolitan area describes an urban area with fewer than 50,000 full-time residents.)

In the 1920s Minot continued to grow, topping 15,000 people, but so did its reputation as an unruly border town. It was a place that paid little attention to things like the National Prohibition Act of 1920. The automobile revolution only helped to preserve that status by creating a fast and efficient method to get to and from Canada. With the nationwide prohibition on alcohol, it became famous as “Little Chicago,” the only ‘open’ or openly defiant city in the 1,500 mile stretch between Chicago, Illinois and Butte, Montana. Minot was a center for the “rum-running” traffic, connecting the liquor supply in Canada with the robust demand of the states.

Besides the highly profitable liquor traffic, Minot was known for other dubious activities. In 1921, the city attorney began drawing up an ordinance prohibiting certain kinds of dances in the local dance halls. In response, the Waverly Tea Room gave public notice to its patrons, “Promiscuous dancing is not allowed in the present day cabarets, so therefore we must adhere to the law.” An illicit drug trade also propagated, although on a minor scale compared with liquor. In December 1922, a series of opium raids cracked down on certain hotels, cafes, and other opium dens. These raids lasted until the end of 1924 and put an end to most of the opium and cocaine traffic.

While illegal activity was prevalent in Minot in the 1920s, so was the desire to make Minot into a pleasing and beautiful place to live and visit. With an acre of park for every 100 inhabitants, Minot’s parks were also making an important contribution to life in the city. The largest was the beautiful tree-covered Riverside Park whose 52 acres were positioned on the Souris River adjacent to the Theodore Roosevelt Highway (Now U.S. Highway 2). In time, it would contain a zoo, a swimming pool, and a scenic drive surveying the river.

The repeal of the 18th Amendment obviously affected the bootlegging activities in and around Minot. Legal beer outlets soon flourished, including beer sales in grocery stores. City ordinances over the beer-only establishments were initially disorganized. It was not until late 1936 that selling hard liquor became legal in North Dakota.

Strong contradicting influences were present in Minot from its haphazard origins on the railroad frontier until World War II. In the 1880s and 1890s the heart of downtown Minot had teemed with gambling houses and saloons, but the people had also laid the foundations of most of the lasting churches and traditions. In the bootlegging era of the 1920s Minot built several new churches, a new hospital, established an educational system and created lasting cultural landmarks. Unbeknownst to the general public, many of the funds and visions that made these advancements possible came from the bootleggers and speakeasy madams.

 A B-52 sits on the Minot Air Force Base airfield. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

 A B-52 sits on the Minot Air Force Base airfield. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

In more recent history, Minot was more known for the Minot Air Force Base, completed in 1957 for Strategic Air Command. The base is currently home to the 5th Bomber Wing and 91st Missile Wing with a support community of around 5,200 personnel. Combined with their families, the base is essentially a small city of around 10,000 people. The base and agricultural communities remained the economic and cultural foundations for Minot until the oil boom.

2009 Oil Boom

Minot remained relatively unchanged until the oil boom that began in 2009. Advancements in oil extraction technologies brought shale fracking into western North Dakota and a plethora of unexpected changes with it. Minot is geographically located 20 miles east of the leading edge of the Bakken shale formation and directly above the Three Rivers shale formation. Together, the two formations are said to hold some 4.5 billion barrels of oil, the largest in the continental U.S. An environmental, economic and cultural revolution hurled one of the most sparsely populated and least diverse states to become the second largest oil producing state; only Texas produces more.

In 2010, the U.S. Census reported a population of 40,888 for Minot, an increase of little more than 4,000 people from 2000. With the development of the oil industry in the West came the demand for a much larger workforce. While the rest of the country struggled with high unemployment, Minot was hosting an unsustainable 2 percent unemployment rate. As of the fourth quarter of 2014, the best population estimates compiled by municipality and rural utility usage is approximated at just over 50,000 people, a population growth of approximately 19.6 percent in just five years and still only 2.1 percent unemployment.

Around 2005, Minot officials began to discuss the need for an updated Zoning Ordinance and Comprehensive Plan. The existing one had been in place since 1979 and was failing to address many of the needs of a growing, modernizing micropolitan area. Issues regarding landscaping requirements, sign restrictions, parking calculations, ADA compliance and other ordinances were either non-existent or outdated. Given the population and economics of Minot at that time the current system worked but was starting to show signs of aging.

2011 Flood

Greater than 100 year flood. The photo on the left shows Minot on May 16, 2011. The photo on the right shows how the flood waters impacted the town on June 11, 2011. Graphics courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey.

The summer of 2011 was a “perfect storm” for Minot as flood waters in the Souris River reached levels previously unrecorded. The Army Corp of Engineers called it a “Greater than 100 Year Flood” that displaced 12,000 people and affected some 4,100 structures.

The flood devastated a large portion of the city leaving hundreds of homes unrepairable, vacant and abandoned at a time when housing was already in extremely short supply. People took to living in automobiles and campers while FEMA temporary housing units showed up by the hundreds as the floodwaters receded. Approximately 20 percent of the town had been damaged or destroyed by the flood. Water levels reached four feet above the previous record mark. While no one lost their lives, the disaster costs surpassed $650 million according to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.

Housing costs skyrocketed out of control; rents tripled, even quadrupled, in some instances almost overnight. Rental costs rose to among some of the most expensive in the nation; they paralleled those in major cities, easily topping $1,200 per month for a two-bedroom unit.

The hundreds of FEMA trailers that appeared after the flood. Today, this land is a new subdivision recently annexed into the city with a new school and fire station. Photo from the National Guard Helicopter tour.

The hundreds of FEMA trailers that appeared after the flood. Today, this land is a new subdivision recently annexed into the city with a new school and fire station. Photo from the National Guard Helicopter tour.

By 2012, the flood waters had subsided. The visual reminders of the long road ahead for any recovery, much less advancement within the city had been exposed. The demand for housing was at a furious level; campers, FEMA trailers, even garages and sheds had become indefinite living arrangements for hundreds of people within the city. Homelessness became a significant problem for the first time since Minot was incorporated.

In Need of Planning

It was a time of uncertainty for a town in dire need of direction and planning. Unfortunately, much of the planning was reactive, as no one could have foreseen the unfolding of the monumental events that redefined the face of Minot. The relief that came was in many ways a double-edged sword. While jobs were prevalent, not much else was. The term “Wild West” was used all too often to describe the situation. As oil companies rushed to pump more and more oil from the ground, workers from all around the country arrived to claim their share of the black gold rush, and a wave of crime followed. The negative secondary effects of economic prosperity in the form of drug abuse, domestic violence, home break-ins, and similar crimes all dramatically increased.

Abandoned.  An abandoned home that was left after the 2011 flood and vacant until 2014. Photo courtesy of City of Minot.

Many longtime residents of the area lost everything. With flood waters reaching far beyond the designated flood zone, most of the people and companies affected had little or no flood insurance and no means to rebuild their lost lives. In early 2014, an estimated 400+ structures were still abandoned or in need of extensive repair. There were still over 100 FEMA trailers occupied within the city in circumstances where people were repairing their homes. Many longtime residents walked away leaving the area behind to start new lives elsewhere.

Others, however, were moving into the area in droves in the hope of landing a high paying oil-related job. The downside was that there was no place for them to live. Hotels were at 100 percent capacity and charging rates similar to downtown Chicago. Apartment rents overinflated, as the market demand pushed rates to 109 percent of the national average. Additionally, single-family homes were in short supply after the flood.

Construction exploded with both local and outside developers building as much as they could, as fast as they could, any place they could build it. Unfortunately, with an obsolete Zoning Ordinance, few restrictions were in place to control the situation and the quality of structures being built. The vast majority of new construction was on the outskirts of the city, and most of the areas damaged in the flood, as well as the downtown area, were generally being overlooked. It was a situation reminiscent of many larger cities in the 1970s and early 1980s: the outer ring of the city was being built at such an alarming rate that streets and utilities could not keep up with development. Meanwhile, the inner city was riddled with hundreds of vacant, dilapidated structures and a downtown that looked as it had 30 years prior.

Directly after the flood, the city created the Minot Citizen’s Flood Recovery Committee, which focused on housing, flood control, finance, and business recovery. For the remainder of 2011, the committee and its subcommittees met weekly to identify issues, develop solutions and bring recommendations back to the Minot City Council. The plan was intended to provide a guide and strategy to best recover from the flood. Over the course of three public meetings with over 500 people attending, people were invited and encouraged to share their ideas and concerns that they felt were the most pressing to address over the next 12 months. Students from area high schools were asked to participate in a similar event. The students recognized recovery issues and potential projects much as the community at large had.

There was also a strong indication that Minot students no longer felt safe in their hometown. Aside from the flood, a major contributing influence was the arrival and sheer number of oil field workers, immigrant workers, homeless people, flood volunteers and strangers to their hometown. Local officials also voiced concerns about the potential loss of population and relative tax-based income to the city. While the State had a substantial surplus of funds from the oil boom, Minot, as a municipality, did not.

Approach to Recovery

The last few years have been trying for the city, but it has been relatively successful in its approach to recovery and planning for the future. Priorities were given to planning projects that would have the most impact on recovery from the disaster itself, have the highest resilience for potential future disasters, and to allow time for residents to rebuild on their own.

In early 2014 the city began the process of forcing the abatements of the abandoned private properties. Many of the homes and buildings had already been rebuilt and repaired, but many remained untouched. Most were bank-owned properties where the pre-flood residents had no means to rebuild and simply walked away. Through a persistent multi-departmental effort, most of the unsafe properties have been secured, demolished, or were under construction, and only a small handful of the FEMA housing units remained by the end of the year.

Entering 2015, the outlook for Minot is looking brighter than it has since 1957, with planning, investment, and numerous changes in the city’s governmental structure paving the way for a new Minot. A new and (almost) polished Zoning Ordinance has established set guidelines for future developments. The Planning Department has also increased from one person to six people in hopes of guiding and enforcing the city regulations and development. Minot has a new mayor and new city manager who recognize the need for both a strong downtown and renewal of blighted areas. They also share a vision and dedication that will see these through to fruition.
In the last few years, numerous plans and programs have been put into action to address downtown Minot and make it a destination location once again. The most established program that has benefited almost 100 projects in the downtown corridor in the last ten years is the Renaissance Zone program which offers tax exemptions for properties or rebuilding structures and businesses.

Minot has also been the recipient of multiple federal grants since the flood to help restore and rebuild the most affected areas of town. The Economic Development Administration (EDA) Financial Assistance Award is a significant contributor to rebuilding the 100-year-old infrastructure. This, in relation with the Downtown Minot Smart Growth Development Disaster Recovery Project, offers monetary assistance in the amount of $22.5 million. It spearheads a multifaceted approach for creating a new downtown and redefining Minot from the dated Midwestern town to a contemporary micropolitan city center.

The City Council recently approved the Riverfront and Center Plan, a concept plan that encompasses six distressed neighborhoods, including downtown, along the Souris River in Minot. The plan was conceived after the 2011 flood in a recognized need for a thoroughly planned recovery aimed at the areas most affected by the flood. This will work in conjunction with the $820 million Souris River Flood Protection Project that encompasses a significant portion of the U.S. section of the river.

Phase I of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Area Wide Planning Grant has been awarded to Minot, providing an additional boost to the revitalization of the city’s core. This multi-phased grant will begin by helping to identify and potentially remediate any likely contamination that has led to a blighted condition. This catalyst grant has the potential to lead to future grants for greater redevelopment. Phase II of the grant will begin the hands-on remediation should Minot again be an awardee of the grant.

Moving Forward

Minot continues to move forward in planning recovery with the focus of resiliency and avoiding future misfortunes as a driving undertone for all current and future development. This is nowhere more apparent than the monumental effort Minot launched in response to an invitation from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to participate in the National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC). President Obama announced the NDRC on June 14, 2014 for communities that experienced natural disasters to compete for funds to help them rebuild and increase their resilience to future disasters. One of only 67 eligible applicants for the nearly $1 billion available, Minot has given its utmost effort in its application for the competition.

The competition promotes risk assessment and planning and funds the implementation of innovative resilience projects to better prepare communities for future events related to climate change. Funding for the competition is from the Community Development Block Grant disaster recovery. Minot will be notified in June 2015.

The prognostic cry of the Great Northern Railroad conductor over 130 years ago, “This is the end of the line, Minot. This is Minot, North Dakota; prepare to meet your doom.” may have been too near to truth several times over in history. However, the future holds the promise of a productive and vibrant future for Minot, perhaps more than ever before. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “All misfortune is a stepping stone to fortune.”

Steven J. Borjeson works in the Planning Department for the City of Minot. Being a Minot native, his family roots go back two generations. His education includes a BA degree in Geography and Urban Studies, and post-graduate studies in Urban Planning, both from the University of Colorado Denver.

Grant References

Published in the April/May 2015 Issue

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