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Civic Center, event center options debated
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Civic Center, event center options debated

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BISMARCK, N.D. - The city of Bismarck has received a second undisclosed offer of land for an event center, at the same it makes plans for a $27 million expansion of the Bismarck Civic Center’s Exhibit Hall. The new offer comes as developer Ron Knutson withdrew a proposed donaton to the city of 50 acres in north Bismarck because the city commission would not agree to build a new civic center/event center at that site.

Knutson’s proposal was for a $150 million event center at 57th Avenue and U.S. Highway 83. Supporters of Knutson’s proposal continue to criticize the city’s decision to invest additional money at the downtown site.

Despite going ahead with the Exhibit Hall expansion downtown, the city has asked the Bismarck Mandan Chamber of Commerce to form a task force to determine the feasibility of a second event center.

Mayor John Warford said the commission’s March 12 vote to expand the Exhibit Hall and ask for the feasibility study was intended to balance both ideas.

“We’re very serious about the study. That’s what people told us they wanted,” he said. “We are not only preserving our convention assets at the Civic Center, we are also looking to the future.”

A new offer

The future now has another option. Bismarck City Administrator Bill Wocken said an unofficial offer of “considerable acreage” in southeast Bismarck has been made to the city for an event center. Because it is not yet a public offer, Wocken said the city doesn’t know details like the number of acres or its exact location and the landowner’s name is not being released.

Kelvin Hullet, president of the Chamber of Commerce, said his organization will name a 20-member task force that will meet in mid-April. Members of the task force will be from the Bismarck Mandan Development Association, the Downtowners Association, the business community, Convention and Visitors Bureau, young professionals, general public, city commission, parking authority, city finance department and Civic Center manager Charlie Jeske. He calls it “a group of interested citizens to evaluate the idea and give it a full and objective report back to the commission and to provide guidance on the future investment in facilities.”

In addtion to withdrawing the donation of land, Knutson said he would not serve on the task force if the city expands the Civic Center, which it has voted to do. Expanding the Exhibit Hall before an event center is voted on “will destroy the potential return if it were combined,” he said.

“We will conduct a feasibility study of a new arena either way (with or without Knutson). We hope that

Mr. Knutson participates in the task force,” Hullet said. “The task force will give a fair evaluation and consideration of the (event center) because the survey indicates that’s what residents asked for. ... The question is, as the Civic Center moves to expansion, what would a new arena bring to the community?”

Hullet said the commission’s intent “was to ensure the community maintains the existing meeting and convention business while we evaluate the idea of building a new arena.”

Commissioner Mike Seminary said the task force study will go on.

“(Knutson) pulled his land offer, but we’ll move forward. There are other locations,” he said.

Seminary said the city commission would base future action on what the task force recommends.

Conflict arises

The conflict began when the city commission placed a $90 million expansion of the Exhibit Hall on the Nov. 6 ballot. The measure failed.

The city commission then proposed the smaller, $27 million expansion, and Knutson countered with his $150 million event center on the north side. The city commission on March 12 chose a 50,000-foot, scaled-down expansion project.

Knutson said residents voted no on the Civic Center expanson because they felt it was a poor investment. He said the smaller expansion ignores voters’ wishes.

“What they are doing is the first phase of the $90 million project. ... The downtown is not concerned about the rest of the city. They only care about not losing the Civic Center,” Knutson said.

Knutson wants a vote on what type of facility residents want and said the Exhibit Hall work should stop.

“If the public says it wants it downtown, so be it,” he said.

Knutson said the north event center is not only for his future profit. “My land will sell regardless. The event center could bring hundreds of thousands more people,” he said.

Warford said an event center’s cost will be important in the city’s plan. He said it was reasonable to add on to the Civic Center and study an event center. Since Knutson has pulled the land offer, Warford said, the study might include looking for new land. Warford said a ballot item could be ready for an event center in 2014 after the study, but said getting a favorable vote might prove difficult with a jail vote pending. He wants operation costs studied.

Seminary agrees. He said the commission had enough time to study public comment when it voted on the Civic Center expansion and the study. It did not go against the Nov. 6, 2012, vote about the $90 million expansion.

“Real leaders make decisions on what they know,” he said. “The surveys and polls validated what we know in making our decision. Sixty percent in the chamber study validated what we know.”

Hospitality tax

Seminary said the Nov. 6 vote “said no to a voluntary hospitality tax on a $90 million expansion. We came back with what we needed to do for the pressing convention and meeting space needs shown in our study done by the Convention and Leisure Group.”

“We’ll address the present convention center needs and move forward in determining what an event center needs would be and where it should be,” Seminary said.

“The Convention and Visitors Bureau reported that conventions bring $42 million per year to the city. It’s economic development — motels, restaurants and more shopping here,” Warford said when asked if the expansion favored a special interest group.

Seminary denied the Civic Center expansion only helps a small special interest group of downtown merchants.

“When money is spent in the community, everybody benefits. Jobs are created. It creates opportunity. There’s more money for schools, more money for projects,” he said. “We are working to make Bismarck a destination place. People who go to conventions stay longer in hotels, buy more at our stores and use more of our restaurants. They might want to live here, might want to open a business.”

He said the commission will base further action on an event center on the task force findings.

City Commissioner Josh Askvig sees dowtown and the north side as two different projects. The November decision was a vote to raise $60 million more in bed and booze tax and expansion of the Civic Center.

“On March 12, the commission decided we don’t want all of the bells and whistles. We voted to make sure we secure the convention business we have to make sure it is a viable destination place until we can look at a broader plan,” Askvig said.

Askvig wants the study to determine how the city should pay for an event center.

Room to grow

“What this (the Exhibit Hall expansion) will give them is 100,000 square feet of trade show space,” said Jeff Ubl, who has designed the expansion. He said 11 conventions have outgrown or are near capacity in the Civic Center space.

The expansion will allow the general assembly and floor show space to all be in the Exhibit Hall instead of separated, Ubl said. It includes a new west lobby and a new Fifth Street and Front Avenue entrance. The expansion will occupy 130 parking spaces, but will be replaced with 106 new spaces near the Front Avenue entrance.

City Commissioner Parrell Grossman said he will wait for what the task force says before he decides to pay for a study.

The city also purchased 1.17 acres of mini mall property at Bowen Avenue and Fifth Street in October 2010 for $1.85 million and continues to lease it out. Grossman said that doesn’t mean the commission is tied to further Civic Center expansion only. He said the city could easily sell the property if a new event center is found to be viable.

The area also could be a new parking ramp if more property were acquired, a meeting area or be available for a private company to build its own hotel there, Grossman said.

“It was not included in the $90 million plan,” he said. “It’s available in the sense that critics say the Civic Center is land-locked. We could sell that property in the future if it isn’t required.”

Reach LeAnn Eckroth at 701-250-8264 or leann.eckroth@bismarcktribune.com.

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