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Erik Burgess, Published June 25 2013

Burgum pushes Fargodome to build downtown

FARGO – If the Fargodome tacks on a 50,000-square-foot expansion, will people come?

A leading downtown developer says it’s not likely, and dome board members are interested in exploring the downtown alternative he suggested Tuesday night.

Doug Burgum, local entrepreneur and Kilbourne Group founder, asked the Fargodome Authority at a meeting Tuesday to consider putting a potential new convention center downtown instead of adding on to the dome, which is on the city’s north side.

Fargodome officials have been brainstorming an expansion to the building’s south, including more flexible exhibition space and meeting rooms – needed assets if the dome wants to attract more events and conventions, according to those who run the facility.

Burgum argued that the dome’s 19th Avenue North corridor is not convention-friendly. There are only 15 restaurants within a half-mile of the Fargodome, 10 of them national chains.

If the convention center were to be placed downtown, there would be 32 restaurants within a half-mile, 25 of them “uniquely Fargo,” Burgum said.

Downtown also has the infrastructure and is walkable, a huge draw for conventions, Burgum said.

“Go to where the amenities are,” Burgum said. “Put your facilities there because the ‘build it and they will come’ (theory) doesn’t happen, and we’ve proven that over and over.”

Before Burgum’s pitch Tuesday night, the authority unanimously agreed to hire consulting firm HVS to study the feasibility of a new convention center – including possible locations and price tags. Following the presentation, the board unanimously voted that downtown should be vetted as a potential location.

“They’re good thinkers, good salesmen,” Deb Mathern, the Fargodome Authority’s president, said of Kilbourne Group.

Prior to hearing from Burgum, board members had been leaning toward adding on to the Fargodome, Mathern said.

“It all makes so much sense,” she said after the presentation. “A lot of it is going to come down to dollars. Can we afford to build downtown?”

The feasibility study was bid at $83,500 and must be approved by city commissioners. Fargodome General Manager Rob Sobolik said it could be finished by mid- to late October.

‘Dream much bigger’

Fargo has the ability “to really think and dream much bigger,” Burgum said, than simply adding space to the Fargodome, where the last major expansion was a $6.8 million lobby that opened in 2000.

Burgum’s proposal for a downtown riverfront renovation would include building a new City Hall, too.

City commissioners agreed unanimously Monday to establish a task force to study a new City Hall, as the existing facility is aging and cramped.

In his presentation Tuesday, Burgum proposed demolishing the 24,000-square-foot City Hall and using the nearby parking lot to make room for three new buildings.

On the southern side, there would be a 20,000-square-foot, three-story new City Hall, and on the north side, a performance hall similar to the Chester Fritz Auditorium in Grand Forks. Abutting that to the west would be a 50,000-square-foot convention center, “which could be a remodel of the Civic Center, or it could be brand new,” Burgum said.

It would create a pathway directly to the river, a goal of the city’s long-term planning.

“With City Hall gone, that opens up the plaza and a green space that goes all the way to the river, creating a great civic quad, if you will, really at the heart of the city,” Burgum said.

It could be a public/private partnership, he said. If private developers and the city work together, “we would end up with something much greater than we could build individually,” Burgum said.

Residents concerned about parking needn’t fear, Burgum said, noting that there are 72 acres of parking downtown.

The board should look no further than when the Microsoft campus – then Great Plains Software – was built in south Fargo, said Burgum, who founded the software company later sold to Microsoft for more than $1 billion.

“Can you name how many restaurants were built near our campus in the first 10 years? Zero,” he said, adding that no restaurants have been built near the Alerus Center in Grand Forks since its construction about 10 years ago, not counting the three eateries that operate inside the convention complex.

“You can’t just build a convention center and expect this stuff just to magically happen,” he said.

If the Fargodome Authority wants to even consider having convention hotel space with the expansion, downtown is the place to build, Burgum said.

“Downtown hotel rooms is about ready to explode, and it just needs one little tipping point to cause that to happen,” Burgum said.

Advantages downtown

The Fargodome has been running in the black ever since it opened, which Burgum called a unique opportunity.

The authority’s reserve fund is around $34 million, and Darrell Vanyo, the board’s former president, at one time said he believed the board would be willing to put about half of that toward an expansion.

The originally proposed addition to the Fargodome would cost between $34 million and $36 million, Fargodome general manager Sobolik said, but he said that was a “very, very rough number,” that could change depending on where they decide to build.

The authority set aside $95,000 Tuesday to pay for the feasibility study. That money comes from budgeted dollars leftover from other projects, Sobolik said.

“It might be very prudent on our part to take a little time before giving actual marching orders to HVS to consider what we’ve heard this evening,” said John Q. Paulsen, the board’s vice president.

Vanyo, also a Cass County commissioner, told Burgum that he still believes there are advantages to adding onto the dome.

“I can’t disagree that there’s advantages as well for taking a look and having a consultant pursue that in terms of a downtown (site),” Vanyo said. “So I’m open to it, and I think that it’d be foolish for us not to (look downtown).”


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