Fargo-based Bell Bank Bets Big on Duluth Presence
(Photo courtesy of Bell Bank)

Fargo-based Bell Bank Bets Big on Duluth Presence

The bank has unveiled plans to lease all three floors of the historic Temple Opera Building in Duluth.

Why would a fast-growing, up-to-date bank move into a building that’s more than 130 years old?

For a market newcomer, such a location can provide an element of distinction. And when that market is Duluth, a historic structure can more quickly weave that newcomer into the fabric of the community.

On Tuesday, Fargo-based Bell Bank—the 10th largest privately held bank in the U.S.—announced that it would lease all three floors of the Temple Opera Building, constructed in 1889. Bell Bank, which entered the Duluth market in October of last year, will move in sometime later this year, once major renovations to the now-empty building are completed. From this location, it will offer retail, private, and business banking, along with mortgage lending.

Tim McShane, president of Bell Bank’s Duluth-Superior operations, acknowledges that “being in a historic building has its challenges, but it certainly has its appeal. You tap into the character and the story behind that building, and it’s part of the story of the community you’re in.” McShane, a longtime vice president at Duluth-based Republic Bank before joining Bell, adds that “a newer space might be less costly, but a resurgent downtown, in a community like Fargo or Duluth … is still the hub for a lot of the business community.”

The Temple Opera Building is a distinctive location in a number of ways. The other banks on Duluth’s Superior Street–U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo, Duluth-based North Shore Bank of Commerce, and Lonsdale-based Frandsen Bank & Trust (which also entered the Duluth market in 2019)—are all located on West Superior. And all occupy newer or modernized buildings. (One exception is Duluth-based Western Bank, which occupies the first floor of the 1908 Sellwood Building at 202 W. Superior.)

The Temple Opera Building, by contrast, is located on East Superior, which is more of a retail and entertainment district. It was originally a seven-story structure, an impressive, richly textured Romanesque building topped by a copper onion dome, according to the Zenith City Press. In the 1940s, the building’s owners removed the dome and the top four floors. The remaining three stories, faced with rough-hewn red sandstone and brownstone, became home to a succession of offices—health and wellness practitioners were among more recent tenants—and first-floor retail businesses. It continues to exude a warmly funky charm.

But the building has been empty since August 2018, when its owner, the Duluth Economic Development Authority (DEDA), made plans to sell it. That sale fell through. Then, in April 2019, the Temple Opera Building was acquired from DEDA for $450,000 by Titanium Partners LLC, a Duluth-based real estate investment and development firm. It owns several properties in Duluth, and is involved in the construction of a 15-story apartment building a few blocks from the Temple Opera Building. The company also acquired the once-notorious Last Place on Earth building down the street. It’s now the home of Blacklist Brewing.

According to Titanium president and CEO Brian Forcier, the Temple Opera Building will be completely remodeled on the inside for its new tenant. “We’ll keep the name Temple Opera Building, and we’ll keep the beautiful façade,” Forcier says. “We’ll make the balcony on the second floor over the entryway arch look very nice.”

Getting the entire Temple Opera Building leased to Bell Bank makes Titanium’s acquisition look notably prescient. Founded in 1966 as the State Bank of Fargo, Bell Bank operates 24 branches across Minnesota (including the Twin Cities), North Dakota, and Arizona, with more than $6 billion in assets. The Temple Opera Building isn’t the first time Bell has established operations in a historic structure. In 2014, it moved its downtown Fargo branch to the renovated First National Bank Building, constructed in 1926.