Developer Justin Forde often drove through Mapleton, North Dakota, thinking, ‘Here is a town without a downtown.’ The bedroom community has nearly doubled in size over the last decade and is now home to about 1,500 people. It has an 18-hole golf course, and it’s a short drive from Fargo, where many residents commute for work. Yet there was nowhere to grab a cup of coffee. One day, Forde realized: Why not build a town square in Mapleton from scratch?
With that, the Maple River Town Square project was born. The aim of the 6.5-acre development is to create a central gathering space where small businesses can thrive and people can gather, lending to a greater sense of community in Mapleton.
Forde recently spoke about the ongoing project and what it’s like to develop commercial real estate in rural America on the Rural Business Show podcast. “Everybody really embraces it — and that really changes the dynamic — when you look at doing a project in a more rural setting,” Forde said.
Growing up in Tolna, North Dakota (pop: 166), Forde learned to appreciate rural living at a young age. He sees a lot of opportunity in small towns, where services are lacking but entrepreneurial ideas are abundant. “People are in these rural communities that want to start their own businesses and run them, but they need a place to put them,” he said. That’s part of the reason why Forde loves working in small towns — there’s just so much opportunity. It’s also usually easier to navigate zoning rules and regulations, and the cost of land is more affordable. However, rural real estate development certainly isn’t easy, and many factors aligned to make Mapleton the right place to invest.
Communities Are Built on Relationships and Hard Work
One of the most important factors in the success of a rural real estate development is ensuring there is enough local interest and foot traffic to support several small businesses. In the case of Mapleton, Forde was confident the interest was there — the population was growing steadily, it had attracted many young families and it was close to the interstate. But because no downtown buildings existed, the Maple River Town Square had to produce its own foot traffic. Location was crucial. Luckily, Mapleton had a 6.5-acre plot of land available off the main thoroughfare that was both walkable to residential areas and near the interstate.
Beyond finding the right opportunity, Forde says success in rural real estate is contingent on relationship building and hard work. He has been highly involved in getting to know the Mapleton community, including its residents, business owners and local governments. This has not only helped with infrastructure development — Forde is working at the local, county and state levels to get more walking paths, bike trails and roads to the square — but also with recruiting tenants to fill the space. This strategy has helped Forde find the first business tenant, and Mapleton will finally be getting its coffee shop. The first building in the town square is complete, and Muddy Boots Coffee House is set to open soon.
“It’s a different clientele that you’re recruiting,” Forde said. “You have to take time to visit with people and spend more time answering their questions. A lot of times this might be their first small business.” Rural real estate development is as much about construction and financing as it is about finding the right people to “take that leap of faith” with you, according to Forde.
Advice for Rural Commercial Developers
Forde gave the following advice to fellow rural developers:
1. Find a place with potential. Look for signs of growth or unique benefits that others have overlooked, like an easy commute to a city or natural attractions.
2. Prepare for a longer runway. Especially during the pandemic, it can take longer to source materials, get approvals and find tenants.
3. Keep rent affordable. Many small business owners are also first-time business owners, and the benefit of locating a business in a smaller community is finding more affordable real estate.
4. Lastly, don’t forget the value of relationships and hard work. It goes a long way toward capital raising and understanding what kinds of businesses will be successful in a community. “Nothing that’s going to be great in a small community is going to be easy,” Forde said. “It’s still a challenge. It still takes relationships and hard work — all of those qualities that we love about rural America.”
To follow Forde’s progress, connect with the Maple River Town Square Project on Facebook or visit mapletontownsquare.com.