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Prairie Rose State Games
TOM STROMME/Tribune Kendra Hirschkorn, right, and Lea Herbel race in the kids' 5 and under 50 meter dash at the 24th Prairie Rose State Games in July 2010 at the Bismarck Community Bowl. This year's games could be the last and ending a 25 year run.

Russ Werth set out years ago to compete in every event in the Prairie Rose State Games. Since the first of the annual Olympic-style games was held in 1987, Werth has competed in about 25 events, though he hasn't been able to do them all.

"I've kind of had to give that up," said the Bowman man, who has competed in all 24 years of the games. His age kept him from doing some events, while others became prohibitive for other reasons - he couldn't find a fencing suit big enough for him, and his ankles weren't strong enough for inline skating.

If he hadn't already given up the quest, Werth would have to after this year. The 25th and final Prairie Rose State Games will be held July 8-10 in Bismarck.

"We've been going 25 years, and it's been a real struggle in some communities," Bob King, president of the Prairie Rose State Games board, said. "As a board, we finally just determined we would turn it over to individual communities if they want to run the games."

Later this month, the board will hold what likely will be its final meeting. King, of Valley City, said it has become difficult to find enough sponsors to fund the games. While the sponsors who have been involved have been very supportive, they are often the same businesses that get hit up for similar activities, such as tournament advertising.

"There's so many things going on that you can only go to sponsors so often," King said.

It has been harder in the eastern part of the state, where possible participants often are lured to other events and activities in Minnesota, King said.

"I guess I'm pretty sad it's going to happen," Werth said, though noting it gave him an easy way to retire from participation.

Gov. George Sinner launched the first Prairie Rose State Games in 1987. Since then, the games, featuring a wide variety of sporting events for all ages, have moved among Bismarck-Mandan, Minot, Fargo and Grand Forks. Games held in Bismarck-Mandan typically have attracted the most participants, King said.

"When it is in Bismarck, it's way better attended," said Werth, believed to be the only participant to compete every year in the state games.

"Bismarck has always hosted the best games," Mark Zimmerman, director of the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, said.

He said some of those first years drew 6,000 participants, and "tremendous crowds" showed up for opening ceremonies. But over the years, things changed. Back then, the Prairie Rose State Games was a big competition.

"There weren't near the traveling teams that there are today," Zimmerman said. Youth traveling teams for basketball, soccer and other sports often travel throughout the region or country now, while back then "Prairie Rose was the big deal."

Some parents have told Zimmerman they don't think the competition at the state games is as good as the regional tournaments, so they choose those over Prairie Rose.

Other forms of recreation also might have overshadowed the Prairie Rose State Games. When the state games began, there weren't as many people out on the river in the summer, Zimmerman said.

"Twenty five years - maybe you've run your course, and it's time for something else," he said.

Barclay Kruse, president of the National Congress of State Games and director of Minnesota's Star of the North, said 31 other states hold state games annually, and many of them are approaching "middle age" for an event, having started in the 1970s or 1980s. Keeping events from going stale is a constant challenge, he said.

"It's very challenging for the event organizers to keep that event fresh and new," he said.

The Prairie Rose State Games has not been a member of the national group for about four years, Kruse said.

He said the strength of state games events nationwide has been a "mixed bag" in recent years. Participation has been up for many events, possibly due to the affordability of participating; but the same economic factors that may have fueled people to get involved in the inexpensive local competitions also have limited sponsorships, Kruse said.

New York's Empire State Games, the first state game in the nation, was fully state funded and was eliminated in budget cuts, though it has been partially revived by other entities. All other state games events are at least partially funded by sponsorships rather than entirely by states, Kruse said.

North Dakota Parks and Recreation used to have a small staff dedicated to the Prairie Rose State Games, but the plan always was to turn the event over to local partners. Bismarck Parks and Recreation put on last year's event and will host this year's.

"It's been really a labor of love," said King, who has been on the board for 23 years. "It's been great and

I think originally we did get some state money, but that ran out. It's a big undertaking. It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of money raised to put on a good games."

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While the Prairie Rose Games may go by the wayside after this year, Zimmerman hopes state games of some sort will stay alive, perhaps by another name or format. King said it's possible that individual cities may want to put it on in some form. Bismarck seems the likeliest candidate, with the long history of strong events. Bismarck Parks director Steve Neu was out of the office, and assistant director Randy Bina did not respond to a message seeking comment.

"It's possible their park district might say, ‘hey, we're going to continue to do this,'" King said. "As far as a board of directors of the Prairie Rose State Games, we will no longer be in existence" after this year.

Ideas that have been tossed around for future incarnations of the games include limiting competitions to every other year or every four years, keeping the games in the same location every year, limiting the number of sports or changing the sports every year, or allowing people from neighboring states or former North Dakotans to participate, Zimmerman said.

Such ideas are up for discussion every year among members of the National Congress of State Games, Kruse said. All of the state games are held annually right now. Some rotate locations while most stay in one place, and both models have pros and cons, he said. Using the same location year after year gives an event continuity but can lead to burnout, while moving it around can keep it fresh but requires constant training of volunteers.

In Minnesota, the opening ceremonies became such a non-event that they were eliminated, while in Montana the opening ceremonies remain a huge draw. The best format will be different for each state, Kruse said.

"The answers are never easy," he said.

While Werth will be sad to see his summer tradition end, he understands how people could have gotten burned out on it. Putting on such a large event is a lot of work and relies on many volunteer hours.

"It's a really good thing," Werth said about the games. "It's too bad more people don't get involved with it."

Werth, a retired physical education teacher in Bowman, said he and his wife were excited to participate in the Prairie Rose State Games after hearing about Montana's Big Sky State Games from friends in a running club. Since then, Werth has competed in many of the events, including some he knew little about and was far from proficient in.

"The main focus was to show the kids, my kids and the kids at school - the students, you can do anything," he said.

Enthusiasts in various activities always were willing to take Werth under their wings and teach him something new. He credits the games for introducing him to some new activities and some "neat people."

"They just want to express how exciting their sport is," he said.

(Reach reporter Jenny Michael at 250-8225 or jenny.michael@bismarcktribune.com.)

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