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Erik Burgess, Published December 18 2012

Moorhead council concerned Fargo School District not doing enough to make Bluestem regional draw; could sue

MOORHEAD – City officials here say the city could play hardball and bring the Fargo School District to court if the district doesn’t show it’s attempting to make the Bluestem Center for the Performing Arts a venue with regional draw.

City Council members aired the concerns about the facility’s 2013 budget provided to them by Fargo Public Schools in a meeting on Monday night.

“We have some regional arts groups that have tried to come out there and use the facility,” Councilman Mark Altenburg said. “They’re having difficulties with that.”

Moorhead City Attorney John Shockley told the council the city could accuse the district of defaulting on their lease if the council doesn’t approve of the district’s budget for the south Moorhead facility, which is owned by the city but operated by the Fargo School District.

The council voted 5-3 to table approval of the facility’s $1.5 million budget Monday and vote on it at their next meeting on Jan. 14. The city’s lease with the district has a provision in it requiring Moorhead to authorize an “appropriate” budget for the facility, though city officials haven’t done so in previous years, Shockley said.

Council members also questioned why the district refers to the facility as the “Trollwood Performing Arts Center” in its 2013 business plan. The district has discussed rebranding Bluestem to share the name of the district’s summer performing arts program, which stages its annual production there.

When the state of Minnesota gave a $5.5 million grant to build the $15 million arts center, which opened in 2009, the grant requires that it provide “regional” offerings.

A nonprofit charged with bringing a wide array of events to the facility and operating it is dissolving early next year, after the Fargo School District paid about $5 million of its debt and took over operation of Bluestem in August.

Councilman Mark Hintermeyer said the venue was in recent years on track to be what the state grant envisioned, but beginning sometime last year, the regional aspect became “somewhat tenuous.” Those details are missing from next year’s budget, he said.

“Let us know that you signed on a promoter,” Hintermeyer said. “That we’re moving forward for this next summer, for the prime dates of using that facility.”

Fargo school officials say they believe they’ve done plenty to assure just that.

Broc Lietz, assistant superintendent for business services, said the facility’s 2013 budget does recognize the district is now charged with expanding the venue’s services.

“We’ve also had conversations with more than one promoter to look for opportunities for that site,” he said. “I’m confused by the notion that they did not see something broader than Trollwood there.”

Lietz said the district is trying to bring concerts, corporate events and arts events to Bluestem. He declined to specify what event promoters school officials have contacted, but he pointed to the 2013 business plan for the facility, which details “program expansion” as a critical issue for next year.

“Trollwood Performing Arts Center is working toward fulfilling its vision of creating a regional arts center for all ages,” the business plan says.

The district also pushed Trollwood to alter the start and end dates of the popular main stage musical to allow for a broader use of the amphitheater, he said.

If Moorhead does not find the budget “appropriate,” Shockley said they could file a civil suit, claiming the lease is in default, but first, the district would get 90 days to remedy any issues.

“You ultimately have to have a judge decide whether or not there’s been a breach,” Shockley said.

Shockley said the word “appropriate” is used but not defined by the lease, and he guesses that word would come into question if brought before a judge.

Lietz said if it were to come down to it, he doesn’t believe there would be grounds for a lawsuit.

“I have no reason to believe that we have defaulted in any manner because we’ve provided what’s required for us to provide under the lease agreement,” he said.

Altenburg and Hintermeyer joined fellow council members Brenda Elmer, Heidi Durand and Nancy Otto in tabling a motion to approve the budget Monday. Steve Gehrtz, Mike Hulett and Luther Stueland voted against tabling it.

Both Gehrtz and Hulett expressed confidence in the district.

“They’re good people. I think we have to give them the space to live up to the agreement,” Steve Gehrtz said. “And the agreement is to operate a fabulous and well-maintained regional arts facility, a crown jewel in both of our communities.”

Stueland questioned getting involved in Bluestem’s budget, given it took the City Council months to approve the city’s own.

The council needs more time to review the facility’s budget, Altenburg argued.

“That’s our single responsibility, is oversight. We haven’t done that in five years,” he said, adding that without that oversight, the facility has “literally spun out of control.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518