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Mike Nowatzki, Forum News Service, Published January 13 2014

Wish list for Lawrence Welk homestead tops $2.3 million

BISMARCK – The North Dakota Historical Society’s wish list for dressing up the birthplace of beloved bandleader Lawrence Welk into a top-rung tourist attraction contains more than $2.3 million in estimated expenses, led by a $1 million interpretive center.

But few people, including Historical Society Director Merl Paaverud, expect the state Legislature to shell out that much to revamp the 6-acre homestead near Strasburg – at least not right away.

Now that the Historical Board has voted to purchase the site for $100,000, Paaverud just hopes that state lawmakers will approve the money needed to open and operate it, an amount estimated by his staff at about $165,000 in a 2012 feasibility study.

That figure includes a $25,000 annual operating budget, $43,000 per year to staff the site from mid-May to mid-September and $1,040 per year for a state vehicle. It also includes $68,400 in one-time opening costs, mostly for maintenance, ranging from a $25,000 skid-steer loader to a $50 Dustbuster.

A new security system also was estimated to cost $25,000. Paaverud said the site already has a security system, but the state would want to replace it with one that ties into the system at the Heritage Center in Bismarck.

In a 6-5 vote on Friday, the board agreed to purchase the property contingent on certain repairs being made. Paaverud said the sale could close as early as this summer.

Because the Historical Society has no money to operate the site, the purchase agreement will require local groups, namely the Tri-County Tourism Alliance and Pioneer Heritage Foundation, to operate the site until July 1, 2015, at which time the state will take over operations – that is, if the next Legislature, which convenes in January 2015, approves funding. If it doesn’t, the Historical Society would have the option of turning the property over to a local entity, Paaverud said.

But before any of that can happen, the Historical Society must negotiate with the property’s owners – Welk’s nieces Edna Schwab and Evelyn Schwab – and supporters on repairs that must be made before the sale is finalized, a requirement of the state law that authorized the $100,000 for the purchase.

The 2012 study identified $488,000 to $578,000 in building repairs needed at the site. Paaverud said the main concern is “critical work” needed to replace the barn’s crumbling foundation and bumpy floor, which the study estimated at $265,000 to $310,000.

Some have suggested the work could be done cheaper if it’s not done by the state, Paaverud said, adding, “That remains to be seen.” He’s hoping for donations and in-kind contributions to reduce or cover the cost.

“We look at the barn as a pretty important building on that site as far as having the space to do things,” he said.

Carmen Rath-Wald of Napoleon, president of the Tri-County Tourism Alliance, said the barn isn’t part of the original homestead and wouldn’t need to be fixed right away. She said the site about 75 miles southeast of Bismarck is “basically a turnkey operation.

“Nothing has to be done as of this moment. So this is all in the future if we would want to move forward with bringing the kind of standards that KLJ has suggested we do,” she said, referring to a structural assessment of the barn done in October by the engineering firm Kadrmas, Lee & Jackson.

While the alliance has no estimate yet on what repairs will cost, Rath-Wald said it has lined up volunteers to do repair work, and the group is “fully prepared” to cut the grass, paint and provide tour guides. And while she declined to name names, she said “there is financial support available.”

“I think going into it at this point, all we’re willing to do is make sure the site is up and running and in good working order and then make a plan through 2015 of how we will run it and keep it open,” she said.

Paaverud said the homestead drew about 500 visitors last year.

He said most of the site’s buildings “are in very good shape,” having benefited from a $147,000 restoration started in 1989 and upkeep since then.

“They’ve been taken care of over the years,” he said.

An interpretive center, carrying an estimated upper-end cost of about $1 million, would provide a central gathering place at the site and educate visitors about how the Welk family and other Germans from Russia homesteaded in North Dakota, Paaverud said.

“But again, that would be down the road. Doesn’t have to be done right away,” he said.

Rath-Wald said she didn’t want to comment on whether the group would be able to run the site without state help.

“The best would be, for the site and state, to have the Historical Society run it, because they could bring to bear the type of resources that would do justice to the Germans from Russia site,” she said.