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Helmut Schmidt, Published February 15 2012

Moorhead City Council member says city should step in on Bluestem

MOORHEAD – In hopes of pushing for more events there, a Moorhead council member wants the city to join talks between the Fargo School District and Bluestem Center for the Arts to fix the finances of the performing arts facility in south Moorhead.

But he might not have much support from fellow council members.

Councilman Mark Altenburg said Wednesday that rather than having Fargo School District operate the Bluestem facility, he’d like Moorhead to run the show – even if it means helping to pay off nearly $5 million in loans and bonded debt held by the nonprofit now running Bluestem. He said he’s uncomfortable with Fargo schools operating Bluestem, which is owned by the city of Moorhead.

Altenburg said he fears the school district would not book the Bluestem with as many concerts, weddings and conventions, and instead focus on the Trollwood Performing Arts School, a Fargo schools program at Bluestem.

“The concerts that we had last year were just a taste of the potential of what we got at that site. I don’t want to see Bluestem give that up,” he said.

Altenburg said the council will discuss the issue Tuesday, possibly with representatives from Bluestem, at a committee of the whole meeting.

Mayor Mark Voxland said the city shouldn’t get involved.

“We’re not even in this discussion. We have no place in it,” Voxland said. “Personally, I think it should be left between the entities that started it and are working it out.”

Bluestem failed to meet a $286,000 bond payment in December, forcing the Fargo School District to pay the installment. That put the nonprofit – which has the same name as the physical facility – into default on an agreement with the district.

The Fargo School Board voted Tuesday to have its representatives meet with Bluestem leaders to offer to have the district take over operation of the arts center, while Bluestem focuses on raising funds to pay off the nearly $5 million in debt on the $15 million facility.

The nonprofit owes the district about $2.7 million on a no-interest loan, and it also owes $2.1 million on bonds issued to build the facility – payments Fargo schools must cover when Bluestem can’t.

Bluestem employees say the Fargo district’s plan to have the nonprofit focus more on fundraising than operations worries them.

Sue Wiger, the executive director for Bluestem Center, said donors like her attempts to broaden bookings with concerts. She said the number of donors is up 20 percent since January 2011, and she collected more than $300,000 in outstanding pledges since then.

Al Schoepp, the facilities manager for Bluestem, said staffers are divided over the proposal. “What happens to the Bluestem staff – especially my position, which is not a fundraising role?” he asked.

Moorhead council members contacted were either against Altenburg’s plan, like Voxland, or they wanted to know more.

Nancy Otto said the agreements creating Bluestem were crafted so Moorhead wouldn’t have to pay to run the facility, particularly since Trollwood had a history of budget shortfalls.

Mark Hintermeyer said that even if the council wanted to put money into the facility, taxpayers are feeling the pinch of paying for flood control and roads.

Mike Hulett and Steve Gehrtz said they wanted to see Altenburg’s proposal before commenting, though Gehrtz, too, thought that talks between the Fargo School District and Bluestem seemed appropriate.

Fargo School Board President Jim Johnson said the district doesn’t think the issue involves Moorhead. However, he said he would not be opposed to having the city help financially.

The Bluestem facility began with a joint powers agreement between Fargo Schools and the city of Moorhead in 2005. Moorhead got a $5.5 million grant from Minnesota, but all costs above and beyond the grant were to be on the Fargo School District.

Moorhead owns the property and buildings, as required for the state grant. The city leases the land to the district and Bluestem, the nonprofit – once called Trollwood Future Builders.

Moorhead doesn’t have a financial obligation, but the city has done flood mitigation work for the area and put in roads and street lights that were assessed to the property, Johnson said.

Johnson said the school district has an obligation to be sure that no public funds are used to pay for the bonds, but he said there will be “no remedies forced” on Bluestem, and there are no plans to cut back events.

“Nothing could be farther from the truth. Our goal is to expand it,” he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583