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Published June 28 2010

Trollwood funding takes center stage

In the past year, the fundraising arm for Trollwood Performing Arts School has had a turnover in leadership.

That, along with the challenges of settling into a new site last year, has made this a transitional time for the nonprofit group Future Builders.

And while President Steve Wurzer said he’s confident the group is on stable ground, budget documents and more than 400 pages of e-mails obtained by The Forum through open records requests paint a slightly more uncertain picture.

Concerns over finances for the arts site and political drama surrounding its leadership are at the heart of the matter.

This month, donors were asked to contribute earlier than planned in order for Future Builders to make their nearly $300,000 twice-annual loan payment by June 18.

That’s prompted Fargo School Board members to keep a close eye on whether Future Builders can keep the new site afloat financially, they said.

If Future Builders can’t make the loan payments, taxpayers would ultimately have to pick up the slack because the Fargo School District is the fiscal agent for Future Builders.

“I had concerns, (and) I think other board members had concerns quite frankly from day one that it’s a big number,” board member Jim Johnson said of Future Builders’ fundraising obligations.

In 2008, the school district essentially granted and backed two loans equaling $6.5 million to Future Builders to complete construction.

“In no way, shape or form were either of those gifts from the school district,” Johnson said. “If they default on their obligation to pay us back, we will take possession of the Trollwood facilities.”

Wurzer is certain, though, that turning over finances or responsibilities to the school district isn’t going to happen.

He said the two major donors this month were William and Jane Marcil and the Alex Stern Family Foundation. William Marcil is publisher of The Forum and chairman and CEO of Forum Communications Co.

“I had no concern,” Wurzer said of making the payment on time. “We just needed to let our donors know that we actually had a mid-year commitment that we needed to meet.”

The next payment is due in December.

Organizational changes

Future Builders was formed in 1998 to help raise money for the arts program relocating from flood-prone north Fargo to drier ground in south Moorhead.

“It started out small,” former Future Builders President Kent Wild said. “Things were a little simpler.”

In fact, the group started out with no staff besides co-founder John Marks fundraising, co-founder Vicki Chepulis said.

Since then, it’s morphed into a larger organization with staff, a board and many volunteers, which has taken some adjusting to determine new roles.

“Maybe this is all part of the growing pains,” Chepulis said this week, adding about the separation of Trollwood and Future Builders, “I’ve always advocated the one team, one leader mantra.”

That could happen.

Wurzer said they’re working now to determine before the year ends how to structure Future Builders in its new site.

There, Future Builders and the city of Moorhead own the facilities and land.

That means Future Builders is essentially the landlord, covering annual operating costs and paying off about $13 million in construction expenses for the state-of-the-art facility.

The Trollwood arts program, which includes curriculum, teachers and materials, is the Fargo School District’s program housed in Moorhead.

Answers to questions over who pays or manages what are becoming clearer with time, leaders say.

“It’s been a big transition time,” Trollwood interim Executive Director Kathy Anderson said. “We’re making great headway to figure out all those pieces. Of course, it’s challenging – change, growth … and moving (to the new site).”

To make sure loan payments are made and Future Builders’ finances run smoothly, the Future Builders board has established a finance committee, and the school district is assisting the group with accounting work.

They still have about $6 million left to pay off construction, Wurzer said.

“If somebody comes up and wants to name the park, we’ll be done this year,” he said of the naming rights for the site, which cost $4 million.

Political drama

The change in leadership, such as co-founders Chepulis and Marks stepping down from longtime roles, hasn’t affected donors’ willingness to give, Wurzer said in an interview last week.

“But after having people involved for 32 years, then there’s a process that we’ve been going through, and we’ll continue to go through letting people know what’s happening at Trollwood Performing Arts School now,” he said. “We want to make sure people know that the legacy that John and Vicki established continues to exist today.”

In a May 21 e-mail to the Future Builders board, Wurzer told them that if donors withhold “because they are not comfortable with where we are at or where we are heading then I will continue to request that they meet with the full Board to let you all know what they need and why we are not able to move forward.”

Chepulis and Marks are just two of several leaders who’ve left Future Builders and Trollwood in the past year.

The number of Future Builders board members has, in the past few years, been about 20 members. But a year ago, the board voted, Wurzer said, to restructure the organization, reducing it to seven board members.

Several other people fundraise for Future Builders but aren’t on the board, he said.

Other changes among the leaders include Executive Director Gail Benson, who was suddenly fired by the board in April after one year in the position.

“Sometimes the vision isn’t shared by everybody,” Wurzer said last week about Benson’s departure.

In an e-mail to the board after being let go April 7, Benson wrote, “I want to express my deep regret that you have chosen to terminate my contract without discussion. I have worked to fulfill the duties requested and required of me, even as we have limited staff and resources.”

A committee of board members and donors is charged with searching for her replacement.

Nancy Jordheim, the school district’s human resources director, told Assistant Superintendent Dan Huffman via e-mail on April 29 that there was fear of a continued division with a new hire.

“We have some personality-driven pieces, and what we need is framework-driven piece(s),” she wrote. “…We need to get rid of the political drama.”

Among Trollwood staff, Anderson, who assumed the interim role for Chepulis’ position, said that the number of year-round staff has gone from about a dozen in 2005 to five today.

She said that’s because Future Builders and Trollwood have become more separate, and additional staffing was cut this year to reduce Trollwood’s budget.

In an interview with The Forum last week, Benson said both Future Builders and Trollwood are in a transitional time.

“With any organization, there’s a rebuilding, and they’re going to need to rebuild staff and the board,” she said.

Trollwood’s future

To show donors that Trollwood and Future Builders are on the path to doing just that, a business plan was drawn up this spring. Future Builders has been renamed Trollwood Arts to reflect its new roles. And board members are working with Fargo businessman Doug Burgum on a marketing plan.

Wurzer said they’re constantly trying to promote that their facilities offer much more to the community than the school district’s summer musical that Trollwood has become synonymous with.

In fact, Wurzer said leaders envision Trollwood becoming a “world-class regional arts facility” – growing in scope and size. They hope to add more classrooms, a costume shop, permanent tech facility, black box theater, playground and additional dance stages and gazebos.

“It isn’t just a place where there’s a high school play,” he said. “Clearly we want to do a much better job … communicating that to the community.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515