The grisly Oscar-nominated comedy Fargo opens with a blinding white landscape, the fog of a blizzard obscuring flat plains blanketed with snow as far as the eye can see. Although none of the movie was actually filmed in Fargo, North Dakota and very little of it is set there, the winter climate it presents is appropriate. It looks like just about the last place you’d want to live.
“It is aesthetically not the prettiest place on earth,” says Erik Hatch, the owner of Hatch Realty and a lifelong Fargo resident. “Topography-wise, it was not given the gift of mountainous hills and rolling landscapes. Weather-wise, it’s just damn cold… But I’m going to say what everybody says about their community, and yet I know that I’m right. The best people on earth live in Fargo.”
Talk to anybody from Fargo, a city that embraces the slogan “North of Normal,” and it might seem like they have some form of Stockholm syndrome rattling off all the endearing qualities of their hometown. But the data supports them. Fargo is the only city that has been on Forbes’ Best Places to Retire list 10 years in a row, accounting for metrics like cost of living, doctors per capita and walkability.
Its median home price of $228,000 is 20% below the national median, and Fargo real estate is a safe investment with the population growing at a steady rate of about 4 percent per year, nearing 125,000 at last count.
People have gravitated to Fargo for jobs in a number of industries: healthcare, technology, education and agriculture. The $500 million Sanford Medical Center just opened in 2017 as the largest hospital in North Dakota, complete with a Level 1 trauma center, cancer research and cardiovascular care to give aging adults peace of mind. Microsoft’s Fargo campus employs 1,600, and North Dakota State University enrolls more than 13,000 students.
“Areas where I used to go out and hunt in the morning, doves and things like that—now they’re neighborhoods,” says Fargo mayor Tim Mahoney, who has lived in the city for four decades and works as a general and vascular surgeon.
The Milken Institute ranks Fargo as the 14th-best small metro area for successful aging out of the 281 it evaluated, citing its stable economy, quality healthcare and cultural amenities and public libraries in town. NDSU regularly brings musical groups to its campus to perform, and its 1,000-seat Festival Concert Hall hosts Fargo’s symphony orchestra and opera.
Brian Arett, director of Valley Senior Services, which supports retirees living independently in the region, says Fargo serves as a magnet for people in small surrounding towns who don’t have easy access to hospitals or these sorts of daily activities as they age. His organization offers benefits like Meals on Wheels delivery or cheap rides to and from appointments or events, and Fargo’s public bus system helps them get around town as well.
“I know it’s the butt of some jokes in our country, but for this area, Fargo is a fairly robust metro community,” Arett says. “In rural North Dakota for instance, or northwestern Minnesota, which is fairly rural, there aren’t a lot of communities as close as Fargo that have that variety of options for older people.”
That’s the elevator pitch for what makes Fargo an enticing place to retire, and residents are quick to offer counterarguments to any drawbacks.
Winters are bitterly cold, with temperatures dipping below zero on an average January night, but Fargo’s airport offers nonstop flights to Phoenix for snowbirds in search of a respite. The airport also makes it convenient for retired people to visit their children and grandchildren. The beach may be upwards of 1,000 miles away in either direction, but Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, less than an hour to the east, makes for a fine summer weekend getaway. It’s more of a hike to get to major professional sports games in Minneapolis, but NDSU has its own national champion football team that frequently brings ESPN’s College Gameday show to Fargo on fall Saturdays.
A Chilly Bargain
Fargo is cheaper than typical retirement hotspots and stacks up favorably in the essentials.
The diverse economy has attracted a slightly more diverse group of young people to Fargo—though it’s still predominantly white, Mahoney says its minority representation has grown from 7% when he started on the city council in 2005 to 15% today.
“I think my citizens sell it better than I sell it,” Mahoney says. “You’ll find a pretty friendly contrast to New York.”
The friendly Midwestern vibe also manifests in a low crime rate, with fewer homicides reported in all of 2019 (five) than were crammed into 90 minutes of the 1996 movie that bears the city’s name (seven).
And yes, it comes with the territory that anybody from Fargo knows they’re likely to be asked by outsiders about the film, complete with its lampoonish accents and enthusiastic “you betcha’s.”
“When it first came out, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is insulting,’” says Hatch, who himself speaks with a barely detectable Midwestern cadence. “There was an uproar.”
The city has come around in the quarter century since. Now, tourists can see the infamous wood chipper prop used as a fictional murder accessory on display in Fargo’s visitors center. If they visit in the colder months, they’ll find people occupying themselves at times like they did in the movie: lamenting the weather with neighbors, sipping coffee in diners and watching hockey on TV. What they won’t find is Siberian desolation.
“Back in college, I camped outside of Best Buy on Thanksgiving to go to Black Friday with literally hundreds of other people, just to get a cheaper TV. So people still do the things that happen in other parts of the country. That still happens here,” says Hatch, an NDSU alum. “It simply is approached with more clothes on.”
I’m an assistant editor at Forbes covering money & markets. I graduated from Duke University, where I majored in math but spent more time following its basketball team around the country as the sports editor and a beat reporter for our student newspaper, The Chronicle.