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CENTER -- In the debate for the title Geographical Center of North America, a new contender has risen, and the namesake may be more literal than originally intended.

Center, an Oliver County town of roughly 600 located 40 miles northwest of Bismarck, is the center of North America, at least according to the calculations of Peter Rogerson, a professor of geography and biostatistics for the University of Buffalo in New York.

“It was a great sort of serendipitous surprise when (the geographical center of North America) came out when it was plotted out on the map,” he said. “I said, ‘Oh my gosh, it is called Center.’ ”

The professor has done work determining important points, including centers of population in the U.S. He said he is more interested in determining geographical points, including the geographical center of North America.

The revelation came as a shock to Rick Schmidt, the Oliver County Extension agent who is based in Center.

“I am not sure that being the center of North America has really set in yet,” he said. “I would say that it is fun to be the center of attention.”

Tale of two cities

Rogerson’s research adds a new twist to the debate as two cities vie for the title, which inspired Rogerson to find the geographical center.

Rugby, a Pierce County city of about 2,900 about 60 miles west of Devils Lake, laid claim to being the geographical center of North America after a U.S. Geological Survey official in 1931 determined the center point by balancing a cardboard map on his finger.

That point was in a slough about 6 miles west of Balta, which is about 16 miles southwest of Rugby. Residents there built a monument to commemorate the declaration.

That title was challenged by a city about 100 miles south of Rugby. Bill Bender, mayor of Robinson and the owner of Hanson’s Bar, said he did his own calculations and figured the geographical center sat under his bar at 123 Main St. In 2015, he marked the spot with a distinguishable marker.

“Rugby’s claim has always been dubious at best,” he said. “We sat down and did some hard science.

This summer, he took it a step further. He said he was wondering if the trade name for “Geographical Center of North America” had been taken. When he looked it up, he saw Rugby had allowed it to expire in 2009.

So he applied and got it last summer. He said he hasn’t gotten any grief from residents in Rugby.

“They are probably more upset at the people in charge of reapplying for the name,” he said. “They dropped the ball.”

Rugby Mayor Arland Gieszler declined to comment when asked what he thought of the Rogerson’s and Bender’s claims. As far as he is concerned, USGS determined the center to be in Pierce County.

“The failure to renew, or whatever the term is, seems a little ridiculous to me that someone can come in, pay a fee and declare something that had been determined many, many years ago,” he said. “I think that that is a little bit unusual that that is permissible.”

Gieszler suggested calling Pierce County State’s Attorney Galen Mack, who is looking into reclaiming the trade name. Mack did not return messages to the Herald Thursday, though Bender confirmed he had received a letter from Mack regarding the matter.

Finding the center

It’s hard to determine the true center of North America as there is “no completely satisfactory method for determining that,” according to USGS. Different models and factors, as well as reference points, can be used to pinpoint the mark, as Rogerson noted.

Rogerson’s research is more scientific than what USGS used in the 1930s. He takes into account the gravitational center, the curvature in the Earth and computer models. He said he has looked at mathematical approaches to geographical questions.

“That’s part of the fun,” Rogerson said, adding it is difficult to pinpoint the geographical center. “There are ways to find this balance point, other than to use a piece of cardboard.”

It’s impossible to know what USGS used as points and what land masses were all included in the cardboard cutout. Rogerson excluded islands, going from Panama to the farthest points of Alaska and Canada.

The agency is not in the position to determine the geographical point, said Mark Newell, a spokesman for USGS.

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“That study was done by a professor that had the time and the interest to determine that,” he said. “His work is as good as any other work that we think we can point to.”

Tourist attraction

When asked if it matters where the center of North America is, Rogerson said that to locals it is a big deal.

“It’s bragging rights, civic pride,” he said, adding geographical points have been used to make decisions when locating cities, county seats and other important landmarks.

It’s hard to say whether the marker in Rugby attracts a lot of visitors to the area, but it has been marketed, said Sara Otte Coleman, North Dakota’s tourism director.

Still, tourism is about embracing points of interest, building around those points and marketing, which Rugby has done, Otte Coleman said.

“It’s one of those quirky things that is fun to market,” she said. “It’s a claim to fame, and it’s those little claims to fame that help communities stand apart and generate interest and awareness in the community.”

Perhaps Center can tap into that title to promote the community, said Schmidt, Center’s Extension agent.

“It has brought tourism and commerce to Rugby to have this recognition, we will have to think it through how we can benefit from this distinction,” he said.

Back in Robinson, residents appear to have embraced the geographical claim as their own, with businesses moving to include the motto in logos. The city will host its first CenterFest in August with music, food and other entertainment.

“We’re going to go big,” Bender said, adding he hopes the event becomes an annual affair.

As for Rogerson’s claims, Bender said he is happy there is another person trying to figure out the center of North America. Bender said he would like to invite Rogerson over to Robinson to compare notes.

“I think that’s really cool,” Bender said of Rogerson’s research. “We respect his work. We would love to have him come out. … We’d put him up, show him around and buy a round of beer. The more the better.”

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April Baumgarten is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. Contact her at (701) 780-1248 or abaumgarten@gfherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @aprilbaumsaway.

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