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Mike McFeely, Published January 07 2009

Mike McFeely column: Donor search stalls

The idea of North Dakota State finding a big-money donor to help finance a new basketball arena is not dead, but it has reached a state of suspended animation. It’s nearing the condition in which Ted Williams’ head once found itself – cryogenically frozen until such time it can be reanimated.

Bison athletic director Gene Taylor said Tuesday the economic meltdown has cooled the interest of prospective donors to the point that it might be time to shelve the effort until things turn around.

“If there’s not a sense that we can get out and get some people to generate the money we need to, then maybe we have to put discussions on hold for a while,” Taylor said. “If we keep hitting ‘no’s,’ we need to take a realistic look at it.”

Given the state of the economy, this is not surprising. Companies large and small, to say nothing of families with mortgages and mouths to feed, are cinching their belts to the pinching point. Donating $15 million to NDSU to build a bouncy-ball addition to the Fargodome is not at the top of anybody’s list.

But this is a blow to NDSU because not long ago, Taylor was close to getting something done with a well-known local company. Then the came the economic Triple Lindy and – poof! – the intense interest disappeared like Norm Coleman’s lead over Al Franken.

Multiple sources say Scheels, the Fargo-based sporting goods giant, was the company close to writing the check. Taylor will not comment on possible donors. Reached Monday, Scheels president Stephen M. Scheel said only that the company had early discussions with NDSU.

The $15 million private donation would be matched by about $16 million in funds from the dome’s escrow account to build a 5,000-seat arena.

So what’s next?

“I won’t say that it’s dead,” Taylor said. “It’s still ongoing. We just hit a little bit of a slowdown. Everybody is cautious.”

NDSU will meet with its consultants next week to compile another list of prospective donors. An option Taylor will explore: Multiple donors, with perhaps a lead giver and two or three smaller ones.

The reality – unless a deep-pocketed benefactor magically appears from the mist – is that NDSU is facing the prospect of having its dream of a top-flight basketball arena put on hold for a long time. Two years? Four years? Who knows?

“It is a little frustrating now. You want it to happen a lot faster than it is happening,” Taylor said. “It would have happened faster if the economy hadn’t gone in the tank.”

Taylor was asked if there’s the possibility NDSU might scrap plans for a new arena and be content to play in the Bison Sports Arena, which itself is slated for a major upgrade.

“Not completely. … If we’ll keep talking about it and pushing it and then if all of the sudden somebody steps forward, we’ll be ready to go,” he said. “It’s going to take a long time before we’re scrapping the whole thing. I think it’s a viable venue, I think the city needs it and I think we can get it done.”

For now, though, think Splendid Splinter – waiting for a big thaw.

Forum sports columnist Mike McFeely can be heard on the Saturday Morning Sports Show, 10 a.m. to noon on WDAY-AM (970). He can be reached at (701) 241-5580 or mmcfeely@forumcomm.com. McFeely’s blog can be found at www.areavoices.com