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Erik Burgess, Published February 02 2013

Fargodome looking at major updates

FARGO – Fargodome leaders could spend half of its $34 million reserve funds on the venue’s biggest expansion ever.

Conceptual design sketches made available to The Forum through an open records request show that Fargodome leaders are looking to add a roughly 50,000-square-foot, two-level event center to the southeast corner of the facility.

That addition would include an abutment to the south side of the Dome, which could add a 6,000-square-foot club room on the third floor and a similarly sized “sky lounge” on the fourth floor that would overlook the arena floor.

The Fargodome Authority Board commissioned local architect Terry Stroh to draw up the long range possibilities for the venue, which officials say is in need of more flexible exhibit and meeting space.

The preliminary sketches of the possible new addition aren’t blueprints, merely conceptual designs.

And while the sketches haven’t yet been discussed officially by the entire board, its president, Darrell Vanyo, said he assumes the board would be willing to put half of the Dome’s $34 million reserves on the line for such a project.

If the plans were completed as designed today, weddings could take place in the new addition while a convention goes on in the main arena. A skyway crossing 17th Avenue North could also connect the addition to the soon-to-be renovated Bison Sports Arena.

There wouldn’t be many places like it in the entire country, Fargodome Manager Rob Sobolik said.

“Fargo could make a lot of people envious,” he said.

Need for growth

The last major addition to the Fargodome was a new $6.8 million lobby that opened in 2000.

A $30 million mid-sized convention and basketball center addition with a footprint similar to the newly proposed expansion was kicked around for much of the latter part of the 2000s. It fell to the wayside in 2010 when Sanford Health gave a $10 million donation to help renovate the Bison Sports Arena instead.

Now three years later, Dome officials are setting their sights on building solely more convention space, something they believe is still needed in the community.

Current exhibit space in the metro area – for example, any given hotel’s ballroom – usually caps out at around 12,500 square feet, Sobolik said.

“This would be a project that would be on a much grander scale than that,” he said, adding that it “doesn’t make sense” to build anything smaller than 30,000 square feet.

“It is somewhat of a surprise that the largest city in the state doesn’t have some bigger, finished exhibit space,” he said.

Centennial Hall at the Fargo Civic Center offers about 15,000 square feet of convention space, but the facility is aging, Sobolik says.

The Fargodome currently has four larger meeting rooms, which can be opened up for a total of 10,500 square feet. Four other smaller meeting rooms are also available.

The new addition would have five times the floor space – a 50,000-square-foot exhibition/ballroom space that could be partitioned in half. Another eight meeting rooms would be located on the upper levels.

Even though the Dome has an 80,000-square-foot arena floor, some larger event organizers are actually looking for that smaller breakout space, said Charley Johnson, president and CEO of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“For a convention that’s big enough to use the big arena there (at the Fargodome), they might want more than that,” Johnson said.

Sobolik said he has had to turn down certain events because the Dome lacks flexibility with its breakout space.

Also, the ability to run concurrent events – one in the Fargodome and another in the convention addition – would mean more flexibility in scheduling for the venue, Sobolik said, and thus more revenue options.

“So (with) existing shows already, we could use more space,” Vanyo said. “Then if you had more space, you might attract shows you don’t even have right now.”

The current plan would also eat up a couple hundred parking spots, a sacrifice Sobolik said he’s willing to make if the new addition can hold its own financially.

Paying for it

Nothing will be built without a comprehensive feasibility study, Vanyo said, and the board’s budget for this year has no money set aside for one.

The board could request that money be moved around within their current budget to fund a study yet this year. Vanyo estimated it would cost at least six figures.

The study would look at the local market needs for such an event center, if it would make money and how construction could be financed.

“We’re not a year from a shovel in the ground. We’re several years, because obviously the major things haven’t been figured out yet,” Sobolik said.

Sobolik said he could see the board asking the City Commission for such a funding shift at the board’s upcoming February meeting. The study could then come later this year.

The City Commission hasn’t officially looked at the issue either, but Mayor Dennis Walaker has seen the sketches and said he would support the current design if the financing can be figured out.

“Preliminarily, it looks good,” Walaker said. “The Dome is like any facility. You gotta continue looking to stay competitive in the area.”

Vanyo said he felt somewhat bolstered by the $34 million saved up in the Dome’s reserves, but some of that has to be left untouched for emergency expenses.

The reserve grows from annual operating surpluses and investment income and contains the proceeds from the half-cent city sales tax used to pay the $48 million cost of the original building.

The sales tax expired at the end of 2008, and the Dome’s bond debt was paid in full in 2009.

Vanyo believed the Authority Board would be willing to put forward half of those reserve dollars for such an addition, just as the board was willing to put half of the reserve on the line when they were considering the basketball addition.

“But we’re not just gonna spend it to spend it and have a structure that doesn’t bring in the money to keep it existing,” he said.

Sobolik wouldn’t venture a guess at how much the new addition could cost, but he said $17 million likely wouldn’t cover it.

“I think there’s going to have to be several funding sources,” he said, which would be identified in a feasibility study.

In the end, both Vanyo and Sobolik likened their aspirations for the Fargodome to the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, which has ample connecting exhibition space, restaurants, bars and a hotel.

“It’s very impressive,” Vanyo said of the Alerus Center. “I think of how impressive the Fargodome is, to add something like that would just be really, really nice.”

Once the plans become public, Sobolik said, he expects a call from the Alerus Center’s management.

“ ‘You’re jealous. You want what we have,’ ” he said they might say to him. “To a certain degree, they’re right.”

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