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Brian Gehring, Bismarck Tribune, Published April 28 2013

ND’s Fort Lincoln State Park to open May 1

BISMARCK – Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park will open for the first time in more than 20 years without its partner, the Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation.

North Dakota’s oldest state park is scheduled to open May 1, weather permitting.

This winter, the state Parks and Recreation Department and the foundation ended the relationship in which the foundation provided interpretive programming for some of the park’s historic attractions, like the Custer House.

Dan Schelske, manager of the park, said the transition has been smooth and seamless.

The thousands of artifacts and items at the Custer House, Commissary and other building remain at the park.

“The foundation has been very gracious ... you won’t be able to see any difference,” Schelske said.

He said most of the dozen or so employees who worked for the foundation conducting tours and programs have been hired for the season.

“We’re going with the same plan the foundation had for years,” he said.

Tracy Potter, executive director of the foundation, said the group will now focus on “spiffing up” the Lewis and Clark Riverboat and concentrate on growing its Five Nations Art store in Mandan.

“Obviously, we’re behind because of the snow and weather,” Potter said.

He said the foundation has identified three priorities for the future: enhancing riverboat cruises, expanding the market for the Five Nations Art gallery and expanding The Post south of Mandan.

Potter said the riverboat, which will be moored at the former Meriwether’s site at Keelboat Park, needs some routine maintenance such as paint and sealant on the hull.

He said the foundation has been in discussions with the city and the Bismarck Park Board to place a permanent building at the landing, after Meriwether’s was demolished.

Then weather has set the riverboat season back about a month, he said. This time of the year, weather permitting, the boat is booked for charter cruises prior to the start of the season.

Potter said the foundation is hoping to increase private charter cruises on the riverboat and shorten the regular tours from 1.5 hours to an hour and cut back on the dinner cruises.

The riverboat hasn’t been able to make the run to the state park for a few years because of water levels, difficult docking at the park and flooding in 2011.

Schelske said the dredging work that has been done on the river has improved the flow in the channel, and Potter said a cruise to the park could be considered.

Schelske said the park lost about 250 trees in its campground during the flood and other than filling in some holes where the stumps were ground down, the campground is ready to go.

“We already have one camper,” he said Friday, a return guest who likes to get out early in the season. He said there were two school groups touring the park Friday and May is normally a busy month for tours.

The two cabins were rebuilt following the flood and the park has 57 electrical sites and 41 nonelectrical campsites. Schelske said fees have stayed the same – $20/night electrical, $12 nonelectrical, $5 daily entrance or $25 annual pass.

Potter said the foundation is hoping to expand the market presence of the gallery in Mandan.

He said they have already made some changes.

He said the foundation is buying more of the artists’ works rather than dealing on consignment.

“Last year we saw our sales increase by about 20 percent,” he said.

With the influx of new people to the state, especially in the west, a new customer base has opened.

Potter said with record numbers of people coming through the Bismarck airport, there has been an increase in interest in the gallery.

“We’ve seen a boost,” he said, which may prompt the foundation to shift some of its marketing strategy to the western part of the state.

And The Post, while normally booked well in advance for events, is still an underutilized asset for the foundation, Potter said.

“We can invest more in that,” he said, in events such as melodramas and historical re-enactments.

And, Potter said, with the foundation out of the interpretive programming business, they have more resources to go in other directions.

So far, he said the changes at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park seem to be benefiting both the park and the foundation.

“As we exited, we wanted to make sure the department (Parks and Recreation) had everything they needed,” Potter said. “We made a nice transition.”