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Helmut Schmidt, Published August 01 2012

Bluestem nonprofit dissolves as Fargo School District takes over arts center

MOORHEAD – Top officials for the fundraising group that ran Bluestem Center for the Arts said Wednesday that the group will dissolve, likely leaving Fargo schools with its debts of more than $5 million.

“It’s time to start over,” said Dave Olig, head of the Bluestem board of directors. “It’s a struggle financially to maintain the organization and still be effective in fundraising.”

That news came as the Fargo School District officially took over all contracts and lease rights Wednesday for the $15 million south Moorhead arts facility. The center is home to the school district’s Trollwood Performing Arts School.

The district sent a letter Wednesday to Wells Fargo, the Bluestem bondholder, to take a $1.8 million construction bond payoff for the facility from an escrow account, Business Manager Broc Lietz said.

The district had also lent more than $2.8 million to the Bluestem fundraisers to build the center. And it made nearly $600,000 in bond payments in December and June.

It appears the vast bulk of those funds will never be paid back, school board President Jim Johnson said.

“We really had no choice,” than to take over the facility, Johnson said.

Sue Wiger, the Bluestem group’s executive director, said the decision to dissolve the Bluestem organization was made by directors last Thursday.

Wiger said that she and a part-time Bluestem worker were told by the district to be out of their arts center offices by Friday.

Olig said he did not know how much money Bluestem had in its accounts. He said some fundraising pledges will also still be coming in.

After bills are paid, any remaining funds will go to the school district, he said.

The school board will work to expand the use of the outdoor amphitheater, turning to university arts groups or the metro’s opera or symphony, Johnson said.

Johnson said he hopes that in 60 days, stakeholders who want to be part of the Bluestem Center’s future can be identified.

He said the board will also help build a new business model for the Bluestem Center. He said he’d like a governing body created that includes a range of stakeholders in the facility – including the city of Moorhead, which owns the complex – that can pay the bills to run it.

Johnson said he’d like to see that come to fruition sometime in the next year.

Clash of cultures

It was a clash of cultures in the last year over use of the Bluestem Center’s amphitheater that led to the decision to dissolve the Bluestem board, Olig said.

Olig said Trollwood can’t be the sole use for the facility for much of the summer, and concerts and other arts events must be allowed, too.

“There has to be more flexibility in utilization of the facility because our season is so short,” he said.

He encouraged any follow-on group running Bluestem to build a set construction facility and a rehearsal stage.

“Believe it or not, we need more. It’s poised to grow. It’s really exciting. We just need people to share the same vision,” Olig said.

The Fargo School District has paid all the operating costs for the center since December.

Fargo Superintendent Jeff Schatz said the district will now fulfill the contracts already written for Bluestem events.

He said the paperwork for taking over lease rights and other legal matters is still being processed.

Schatz said district staff will help in reorganizing the facility.

“We are committed to re-energizing the process,” Schatz said.

$20 million since 1998

The Bluestem group had long been a fundraiser for Trollwood and to eventually build the Bluestem Center.

By Bluestem’s calculations, the group, first as FutureBuilders in support of Trollwood Performing Arts School and later as Bluestem, secured more than $20 million for Trollwood programs since 1998.

Wiger, who directed the facility for 18 months, said she’s proud of the work done by Bluestem.

“Sometimes it just gets to the point that you need to decide what’s best for the organization itself,” she said, adding, “I think everyone’s proud of the dollars raised for Trollwood.”

Johnson said he wishes that talks between school board and Bluestem representatives could have led to a new working agreement.

Now, Johnson said, the district will work to make sure the facility is not only used by Trollwood but other regional arts groups.

Olig said he’s anxious to see what happens and the reaction of the community.

“This is a community facility. That’s the most important thing to note,” Olig said.


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