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Associated Press, Published March 13 2013

Bismarck to expand Civic Center Exhibit Hall

BISMARCK — City leaders have voted to expand the downtown Bismarck Civic Center's Exhibit Hall at a cost of $27 million and to look into whether to build a $150 million events center on the city's north side.

City commissioners have been debating what to do since voters last November rejected a $90 million Civic Center expansion.

“The merging of two rather polarized philosophies could be a convention center in downtown and an event center in our north,” Mayor John Warford said.

Work on the Exhibit Hall expansion likely will start this spring and be mostly done in time for the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in May 2014, according to Warford. Last year's three-day conference drew more than 4,000 people from 47 states and several countries.

The city will use existing hospitality taxes to pay for the work, so the project won't require voter approval. Fifty-seven percent of voters in November rejected a proposal to increase hospitality taxes to pay for an expansion of the Civic Center, which has an arena that can host about 10,000 people for sports and concerts, along with the detached Exhibit Hall.

Commissioners say it is possible that a 14,000-seat north-side event center idea could be on the election ballot sometime in 2014.

Ron Knutson, developer of the north-side proposal, said he though voters also should have had a say in the Exhibit Hall expansion.

“Four months after the people voted no on putting money on the old building, they (commissioners) let special interest groups dictate against what the people voted,” he said.

Commissioners said expanding the Exhibit Hall to meet current convention needs will help downtown businesses, and a north-side arena could anchor commercial and residential growth in the U.S. Highway 83 area. Public meetings have been held on the idea.

Expanding the city's capacity to host big conventions is “a clear and present need — one that has been thoroughly studied, reviewed and debated,” City Commissioner Mike Seminary said.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.