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Kyle Potter, Published October 04 2013

Event planner study shows no preference between downtown, dome for convention center

FARGO – The only certainty about where event planners would like a new convention center here – downtown or built onto the Fargodome – is that they’re uncertain.

A survey of event planners in the region, commissioned by the Fargo Dome Authority, found that roughly a third would prefer downtown and a third said it would be best to expand on the dome. The remaining third were undecided.

So, too, are members of the Fargodome’s governing board, which is weighing the two locations as it moves ahead with plans for a possible 50,000-square-foot expansion to the building. Their decision won’t come until the end of the year, after getting more information about how much each option would cost and how to pay for it.

City leaders say a new convention center could help Fargo compete with venues in other cities in the region, such as the Alerus Center in Grand Forks.

Darrel Vanyo, a member of the Dome Authority and a Cass County commissioner, said the decision will hinge on the financial feasibility of the projects, an element of the study he expects consultant HVS Convention, Sports and Entertainment Facilities Consulting of Chicago to complete and present sometime in the next month or so.

“It’s all about dollars and cents,” Vanyo said.

Board president Deb Mathern said the authority’s decision between the two locations likely won’t come until near the end of the year. The Fargo City Commission will then take the authority’s recommendation and make the final decision.

If city leaders decide to build a new convention center downtown, Mathern speculated it may not be completed until 2018. An extension at the Fargodome could be done sooner.

Goals and strategies

HVS put the location question to about 2,500 event planners from North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota; roughly 25 percent responded. The consulting company presented survey results and other preliminary information on the convention center to the Dome Authority on Friday.

Managing Director Thomas Hazinski said the choice will boil down to goals and strategies: Does the board want to attract trade shows, at which HVS says the current dome excels, or more business conventions, which a standalone downtown convention center could do.

Like Vanyo, Mathern said the board’s decision will rest largely on financials – how much each site would cost and how to pay for it.

She said the board is open to building downtown if HVS believes that’s the best location. But all of the moving parts downtown – a new City Hall, additional flood protection from the Red River and the likely need for a new hotel to accommodate a convention center – makes the downtown option a puzzle.

“It’s going to be a heavy load for them,” Mathern said of the consultants weighing the pros and cons of the two locations.

Though downtown already has the Fargo Civic Center – which is connected to City Hall – local developer and entrepreneur Doug Burgum said the city lacks a “true convention center,” and believes downtown is the right spot.

Burgum initially floated the idea of a downtown convention center in late June, shortly before the City Commission approved the $95,000 study of convention space.

Though he conceded a downtown site may come with some extra costs, like a parking structure rather than surface parking lots, Burgum said his preferred location’s proximity to restaurants and businesses makes it a no brainer if city leaders want to put Fargo on the map for conventions.

“I would look at that as a piece of economic infrastructure,” Burgum said.

Rob Sobolik, the Fargodome’s general manager, said the decision won’t be made based just on the Fargodome’s interests, but for the city as a whole.

“From an operational standpoint, I don’t think it’s a secret that it would probably work better up at the Fargodome. But there are other important factors to be discussed,” he said. “This is a 30-, 40-, 50-year and beyond question.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Kyle Potter at (701) 241-5502