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Helmut Schmidt, Published June 04 2012

Burgum says Bluestem key is keeping it in high use

FARGO – Most of the Fargo School Board, Bluestem fundraisers, two Moorhead City Council members and Doug Burgum, one of the region’s biggest philanthropists, met Monday to brainstorm how to cut the financial and philosophical knot that’s tied up the Bluestem Center for the Arts since December.

Nearly all at the meeting got to state their position, but it was Burgum’s thoughts that grabbed the most attention.

Burgum told the group they should be trying to turn the south Moorhead arts center into a premiere facility, “and I would do everything I can to keep supporting the nationally recognized high school summer arts program” as a starting point.

Burgum said high use is vital to get the Bluestem Center in a position to pay their bills.

“Any of these facilities, whether it’s the Fargodome or the Bluestem Center, you can’t make money unless you have the most number of booked days. … Any day but lightning” is the right approach, Burgum said.

Getting high utilization is different from controlling use, he cautioned.

Donors will also give more to a facility that is in greater use, Burgum said.

Burgum said the school district should pay rent for the time it uses, even though it pays the bills.

“If Gate City was the (entity) that loaned the money to get the Fargodome built, and Gate City said, ‘We want to use the Fargodome for two months, and we don’t want to pay any rent,’ the Fargo Dome Authority would have said, ‘Uh-uh, that isn’t going to happen. We owe you the money, but you pay what everyone else pays for, access to the facility’ ” so we can pay you back, Burgum said.

While the school district says it uses just 60 days out of the year, Burgum said it actually uses two of the four prime summer months – 50 percent of the top amphitheater days

“As a donor, I don’t go as far as saying it’s offensive, but the idea that Fargo Public Schools isn’t paying rent to the facility is one of the reasons the business model isn’t going to work,” Burgum said.

He said the area’s colleges and university drama programs should also be invited to use the facility.

And a single, independent manager or managing agency should be in charge of the facility, he said.

Moorhead City Council members Mark Altenburg and Heidi Durand said they’d like to see Moorhead take a greater financial role in the Bluestem Center.

Altenburg said the city needs a way to drive revenue toward struggling hotels, bars and restaurants during the summer when students from the city’s colleges and universities head home.

“This is a real asset to Moorhead. We want to see it succeed,” Altenburg said.

Altenburg admitted that there is resistance among some Moorhead city leaders, who have a “we have our hands clean” attitude about staying clear of Bluestem Center’s problems.

In contrast, Altenburg said he and Durand are open to having Moorhead take on a financial stake in maintaining Bluestem Center.

But, he also warned that continued problems at Bluestem Center might invite unwanted scrutiny from state government or Twin Cities media.

Fargo School Board members attending included President Jim Johnson, Rick Steen, Linda Boyd, Paul Meyers, Robin Nelson, John Strand, Dinah Goldenberg and Kris Wallman. Rusty Papachek was absent.

Bluestem was represented by the head of the board of directors, Dave Olig, and the Bluestem Center’s executive director, Sue Wiger.

Olig also called for a single person to oversee the facility. “There are going to be concessions and inconveniences,” he said.

Steen said the decision by the school district to pay off $2.1 million in bonds and take over lease rights at Bluestem Center is not meant to eliminate the Bluestem fundraisers from the mix, but “to create a new governance model” and protect taxpayers’ investment in Trollwood Performing Arts School

But Burgum warned that checks from donors would dry up if that happened.

“There’s one way for sure you’re not going to get paid back; it’s to do what you’re doing right now – exercise these options, take over the facility. Because why in the world would I write out another check to the Fargo School District, when it’s sitting with a boatload of cash” in its ending fund balance, Burgum said.

The rise in the facility’s cost from $11 million to

$15 million that led to the current problems was overseen by Fargo School District employees, he said.

Donors and fundraisers shouldn’t be blamed for the result, Burgum said.

Burgum said two brands have been damaged in all of the negative news coverage since December: Trollwood and Bluestem.

“The two assets that need to be cared for the most are those two brands,” Burgum said.

Fargo School District and Bluestem officials are scheduled to meet again Thursday at the school district offices.

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