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Jane Ahlin, Published April 28 2012

Ahlin: Now, devil is in the details for Bluestem/Trollwood

Looking at the Trollwood/Bluestem financial predicament, I can’t help but think of one of my mother’s favorite clichés: The devil is in the details. The original grand plan for what an expanded arts center could be was premised on rosy economics. Now that Bluestem is mired in debt, the lack of contingency planning is fracturing the Trollwood/Bluestem bond. Time to air the dirty laundry and find a way to move on.

Capital campaigns by nature demand cohesive storytelling; however, the Trollwood/

Bluestem story came with some assumptions – assumptions never significantly challenged or resolved in the arena of public opinion. Now that there are problems, those issues must be revisited and put to rest. Perhaps Dave Olig, president of the Bluestem board of directors, put it most succinctly when he told Fargo School Board members, “Until the community buys back in, we’re done.”

With all the flooding problems, no one questioned the need for the Trollwood program to move away from Trollwood Park in north Fargo. When the idea for the expanded arts center was first bandied about, not surprisingly, Fargo residents anticipated it would be located in Fargo. Very quickly, however, an entirely different assumption took hold, and the assumption was that it must be located in Minnesota because money for the arts was readily available in Minnesota. The idea of any significant state funding from North Dakota being made available for an arts center – particularly in “imperial” Cass County, much less Fargo – was dismissed as an impossibility. (Now that Minnesota has financial difficulties and North Dakota has such an incredible surplus, we might wonder whether that still is the case. Then again, the North Dakota Legislature has shown no signs of making additional funds available to the arts.)

With Trollwood’s move to Minnesota woven into the fundraising storyline, any questions about the wisdom of placing a Fargo Public Schools program in another city and state were glossed over as parochial and unsophisticated. Big mistake. Had the complicated nature of the move and the “what ifs” been dealt with openly on the front end of the process, much of today’s pain and public irritation could have been avoided. At the very least, it is unlikely the Fargo School Board would have allowed FPS to be the sole guarantor for facility debt.

The initial Minnesota money – about $5 million – seemed to validate the choice of the Moorhead site. Ongoing, however, there are problems. The Bluestem facility would not have been built if Trollwood had not needed new facilities; in fact, community support for an expanded arts center stemmed from appreciation for the Trollwood program. Still, it is a Fargo Public Schools program. Its prominence in Bluestem today is not a plus with Minnesota grant providers. Instead, to receive grants, Bluestem must be seen as a presenter of programming in its own right.

No wonder the situation has slipped into turf war.

Other questions not sufficiently ironed out in the Trollwood move across the river concern the city of Moorhead and how its role in the Bluestem center was expected to evolve. Of course, draconian cuts from the state of Minnesota and tight city budgets have stunted opportunities for that conversation.

And that’s where things stand. At least for now, the Fargo School Board must maintain operational control to protect the Trollwood program and do right by Fargo taxpayers; however, Bluestem must have enough autonomy to establish identity as a Minnesota arts organization. Coexistence isn’t enough – only cooperation will do. To that end, where personal relationships have grown toxic, either the relationships have to change or new people must be brought in.

Fundraising for capital projects almost always takes a toll on the organizations involved. The Trollwood/

Bluestem project had the added challenge (now growing pains) of creating a new entity. The community supported the initial grand plan. Now it’s time for the parties involved to get the details right.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum. Email janeahlin@yahoo.com