When Mandan embarked on its cleanup of hundreds of thousands of gallons of diesel fuel spilled from the BNSF Railway yard, there was a bleak outlook downtown, said Mayor Tim Helbling.
"People said there'd never be investment in that property again," he said. "When we knocked buildings down, people said nothing would ever get built here again. The whole attitude of the downtown business district was very poor."
Today, downtown properties are once again salable and market values have increased, said City Administrator Jim Neubauer.
"Owners are investing in property improvements and many spaces that were previously vacant are now occupied by new and expanding businesses," he said.
For remediation, Helbling said it was unfortunate that historic buildings had to come down, but in the long term, the new buildings are something Mandan can be proud of and it was a good tradeoff.
"Ten years ago some developers wouldn't even give Mandan a look," he said. "Now they're giving us a second and a third."
At the front of the fight, alongside Helbling, was former Bismarck-Mandan Development Association director Russ Staiger, who said his organization had long been looking for a way to help Mandan with the renewal of its downtown.
At that time, in some areas of the downtown, he said homeowners just digging in their flower beds could turn the dirt and smell diesel fuel. And if someone was considering building, financing became an issue because banks were concerned about making loans on downtown property over fear of environmental liabilities.
"It had a whole lot of interconnection throughout the business community," Staiger said.
Once a settlement was reached and cleanup began, there was more of a willingness to reinvest. Staiger said there may have been those who would have taken a chance, but he doesn't think Mandan would have gotten the momentum it did.
"It resulted in what I think is this pretty positive downtown area that could have, on other hand, continued to degrade," Staiger said.
Staiger said he thinks Mandan is in a good position to expand on the work it has done.
"The great thing about downtown Mandan is it’s starting to turn a corner," said Matt Reichert, commercial Realtor with the Aspen Group. "There's more going on there than people realize. People from Bismarck are going to Mandan for good food ... What started out as a situation that was very dismal at the time has come and borne great fruit for Mandan."
Commercial Realtors said, before Mandan's reinvestment, commercial property owners were getting $7-$9 per square foot.
"Some of those (now rebuilt properties) were even below that," said George Yineman, of Bismarck Realty.
Now rental rates are closer to $11 per square foot and only 1,000 square feet of commercial space remains available for lease in Mandan Place, one of two new mixed-use buildings on Main Street.
The apartments in those buildings are mostly full, too, with only two vacancies in Collins Place, said Property Manager Melanie Mueller, of IMM.
Mueller said their residents enjoy the convenience and easy access to downtown events, like the Fourth of July Parade.
"It’s downtown; everything is right there," she said.
More attention has come to properties in Mandan in the last year or two because of development downtown, said Taylor Daniel, commercial Realtor for Daniel Cos.
"All the new bars, restaurants and retail actually makes the area very engaging and very attractive for commercial tenants," said Daniel, who lists office space available on the third floor of American Bank Center.
Yineman said it took longer than what's typical, in terms of days on the market, to fill commercial space in the newer buildings. But after securing one tenant, he said the area gained momentum and the rest fell into place quickly.
Helbling said, when he started this, he didn't know if this day would come but now downtown is a place of hope.
"Most of the plans we laid out have come to fruition," he said.