Long Discussed, F M Convention Center Still Just A Distant Goal

Fargo's mayor recently said it's no longer a priority for him.

"I would say to the Chamber, 'Why don't you guys figure that out?'" Mayor Tim Mahoney recently told The Forum's Editorial Board, citing the higher priority for a downtown performing arts center and limits to the city's spending.

"People compare us to Sioux Falls, and I said Sioux Falls doesn't have a $2.4 billion (Fargo-Moorhead flood) diversion project they need. If we didn't have that on us..." he said, trailing off.

Charley Johnson, who runs the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau, said at this point he'd settle for some additional space built into the performing arts center or the Fargodome, not a stand-alone convention center envisioned earlier.

Both the performing arts center and Fargodome have limited funding available, however.

The only group that appears to have the money and the will is West Fargo. Mayor Rich Mattern said the city is partnering with the Red River Valley Fair Association to build a convention center at the fairgrounds using taxes paid by the group.

But Johnson and Craig Whitney, who runs the metro-area Chamber of Commerce, said the location at the community's western edge is all wrong and the building as planned won't be big enough for major conventions.

"If we don't tackle this issue and discuss it in a meaningful way, we're missing opportunity," Whitney said.

A convention center that meets the community's needs, he said, should bring visitors from all around the Upper Midwest and beyond, stimulating the area's hospitality and retail sectors.

City consultants said in 2014 that visitors coming to a downtown convention center would spend $14.6 million a year, while those going to a convention center at the Fargodome would spend $15.5 million.

Fargo's out

For a time, the City of Fargo took the lead on convention center discussions with opposing internal camps seeking to build it downtown or at the Fargodome. But news earlier this year that the flood diversion project would cost an additional $200 million because of design changes needed to satisfy Minnesota regulators seems to have taken the wind out of the city's sails.

Consultants hired by the city reported in May 2017 that a convention center would cost $76.5 million to $111 million after looking at four sites: the Ground Transportation Center downtown, the Fargodome, Scheels Arena and West Acres mall. City leaders soon began talking about the need for a public-private partnership.

Mahoney now suggests the private sector could build the whole thing. "I told Craig Whitney if you could figure out a way forward, I'm fine with it. You have to figure out finances that don't have the City of Fargo down for tens of millions."

Whitney said the Chamber has not actually been asked to take the lead by any city leader.

Mahoney's viewpoint is that Fargo already faces an uphill battle for conventions because it just can't compete with places like Las Vegas or San Diego. His focus, he said, is on replacing the Civic Center, which would be an anchor for the complex around the new City Hall now under construction.

Even this priority project is expected by city leaders to get half its estimated $51.4 million price tag from private fundraising.

Johnson said Fargo-Moorhead rarely competes with San Diego. He said it's more likely to compete with regional peers such as Grand Forks, Bismarck, Sioux Falls and Duluth, "all of which have convention space that we can't touch."

West Fargo

Watching Fargo struggle with the convention center, West Fargo is pushing ahead with its own, estimated to cost $20 million.

Talking about the project, Mayor Mattern sounded like he's heard plenty from the Chamber and CVB about why it wouldn't work and he's tired of the negativity.

"They have this conception that it's a fairground and it's all about animals and it's ugly. The fair board will tell you that they want to change the whole complexion of that area out there, make it look really nice," he said. "I'm perfectly comfortable that it's going to be a great venue. And I'm sorry if they don't feel the same."

Whitney said he applauds West Fargo's initiative, but the problem with the fairgrounds is that there are few hotels, bars or restaurants nearby unlike other parts of the city.

"It's basically at the fairgrounds in the middle of an industrial area of town," Whitney said. "To make that work the way they're proposing it, I would have to say would take a lot of development."

Mattern said the area around the Fargodome was pretty bare when it was built in 1992 but now has hotels and restaurants.

"The same thing is going to happen at the fairgrounds. You build it, they will come with the hotels, the restaurants, the whole nine yards. You just have to keep an open mind," he said.

The Fargodome is next to its biggest tenant, North Dakota State University.

Johnson said he'll book whatever event he can at the West Fargo facility, but the space envisioned there is not a convention center but rather an exhibit hall with some meeting space. He said a major convention would need a 40,000- to 50,000-square-foot ballroom with additional breakout meeting rooms.

Conceptual plans for the West Fargo convention center would add up to 87,000 square feet of space, of which 12,000 could be converted into a ballroom, according to Bryan Schulz, the fair association's general manager. The entire space can't be carpeted because it wouldn't be practical to park tractors or other equipment on it for trade shows.

The biggest ballroom in Fargo-Moorhead right now has 15,000 square feet.

In contrast, the convention center Fargo envisioned would have 126,000 to 156,000 square feet of space, though Johnson said city consultants concluded that an 80,000-square-foot addition to the Fargodome could get the city 85 to 92 percent of the conventions it would want.

Schulz said the fair association's plans aren't fixed yet and it would be willing to talk about adding space for a bigger ballroom.

Other options

The other group that has some money and the will to build a convention center is the Fargodome. The board there recently voted to hire architects at R.L. Engebretson in Fargo to plan the facility's expansion.

General Manager Rob Sobolik said the Fargodome's top priority is enhancing its arena, including expanding the concourse, enlarging the lobby and adding club space. The next-highest priority is adding 30,000 to 60,000 square feet of meeting space for conferences and conventions on the building's south side, he said.

The Dome does have $40 million saved up, which is enough for arena enhancement, he said. The meeting space would require other kinds of funding, such as additional hospitality taxes, he said.

As for developers at Scheels Arena and West Acres mall who have talked about a convention center at those locations, Whitney said it was unlikely the private sector could bear the weight of such a project alone. The mall is dealing with retail challenges, such as the loss of the Herberger's department store, so it'd be "insane" to spend millions on a convention center.

He said he would like to see a community task force study all aspects of the convention center similar to the one that eventually helped win support for the diversion project several years ago.

When funding for a convention center is needed, he and Johnson said, it would have to be a public-private partnership rather than the private sector alone. Johnson said the profit isn't in running a convention center, but in the hospitality and retail businesses that serve convention-goers.

"The bottom line is where's the political will to build one of these things and then where's the funding for it?" Johnson said. "Those are the things we need to know."

Source : http://www.inforum.com/news/government-and-politics/4445565-long-discussed-f-m-convention-center-still-just-distant-goal

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