Friday, November 28, 2014
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Fargo residents debate the need for a downtown arena
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This is the site in downtown Fargo where a new arena would be built, if Fargo voters approve a sales tax extension to pay for it. (MPR Photo/Bob Reha)
For years, metropolitan areas have used new stadiums and arenas to spur economic development. In the Twin Cities, the pros and cons of new parks for the Vikings, Twins and Minnesota Gophers have sparked heated debate. Some point to the Xcel Center as a part of revived downtown St. Paul. But it's not just a technique for big cities. It's a strategy smaller cities sometimes use successfully as well.

Next week, Fargo voters will decide if they want to follow the trend. Residents are being asked to extend a half-cent city sales tax for three and a half years. Supporters want the money to fund a new multi-purpose arena to be known as The Renaissance Center.

Fargo, N.D. — In recent years, Fargo has spent millions of dollars sprucing up its downtown. Panhandlers who once scared people out of the area are gone, and streets got a facelift. There are new downtown restaurants and clubs, which complement the retail and office buildings that make up the area.

While downtown Fargo is a popular spot, some people think there's something missing -- a major attraction to draw large crowds. Brad Wimmer says he believes building an all-purpose arena like the Renaissance Center is the answer.

"A nice facility that can be transformed into a basketball or volleyball arena -- that would have festivals, that would also house concerts, that would also have trade shows. So very, very, multi-purpose," says Wimmer, a member of a citizens committee supporting the project.

The pricetag for the building is $40 million. Wimmer says the arena would include an ice rink to replace the city's old hockey facility. Wimmer says it's smart to use the sales tax for a multi-purpose building.

If the local school district has to put up a new hockey arena, the cost will be shifted to property taxes. Wimmer notes the local school and park boards have indicated they'll rent the arena for as many as 120 days per year.

The citizens committee is asking voters to extend the local sales tax, currently scheduled to expire in 2008, another three years until June 2012. It was originally passed by voters to build a different arena, The FargoDome.

"It's already a sales tax that everyone is paying right now, so it's really just a 42-month extension," says Wimmer. "I don't know how much more painless we could have this facility."

Wimmer envisions the new arena as a perfect fit for downtown. It would be capable of seating 7,000 people -- big enough to draw state tournaments, but small enough not to compete with existing venues like the FargoDome. Building a multi-purpose arena to draw people downtown is not a new idea. Kent Robertson, a community development professor at St. Cloud State University, notes it's been a popular strategy for the past 25 years. But he warns the build-it-and-they-will-come approach has flaws.

"If there are already a couple of perfectly fine venues for that activity, then if a group is touring and they're going to come to Fargo, they're only going to come to one place," says Robertson. "They're not going to come to three, obviously, so it would be competing against yourself."

Opponents say Robertson has a good point. Fargo already has venues to house concerts, festivals and trade shows. Fargo City Commissioner Mike Wells says if the city is going to spend $40 million, it should get more than just a hockey arena.

"We could build a floodwall downtown that's estimated at $15 million. We could build a 2,500-seat performing arts arena for $15 million," says Williams. "And we could build a hockey rink for 6,000 or 7,000 people for $10 million."

The new arena would take up an entire city block. A dozen businesses would have to be relocated, and another dozen low-income housing units would be lost. And Williams says there are too many unanswered questions about those aspects of the project for him to support it.

The arena proposal in Fargo faces its most important public test next week, when voters decide whether to approve the sales tax to pay for it. A recent poll in the Fargo Forum newspaper shows 57 percent of voters opppose the arena.

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