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City of Bismarck's Search for Developer to Build a Convention Center
 Hotel Adjacent to the Civic Center Grows to 21 Companies

By Gordon Weixel, The Bismarck Tribune, N.D.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Dec. 15, 2005 - Bismarck's search to find someone to build a hotel adjacent to the Civic Center is getting a lot of interest locally, statewide and nationally.

To date, 21 companies have responded to the city's advertisement, the Civic Center Advisory Committee was told Wednesday. It was the first time the committee, chaired by Mayor John Warford, has met since it was recently appointed by the city commission.

Civic Center-Exhibition Hall manager Dick Petersen took the group through the agenda, which included the search for a hotel-convention center builder, the future possibility of outsourcing the Civic Center-Exhibition Hall management and facility expansion plans.

Response to the city's search for someone to construct a hotel will be taken until Jan. 31, at which time they will be turned over to the city commission for review. So far, the list includes local inquiries such as the Ramkota, United Tribes Technical College and Expressway Suites; statewide from Fargo's Lexstar Development & Construction, Findin, LCC of Minot and Williston's John Sterns Construction; and nationally from Commonwealth Hotels of Covington, Ky., Waterford Group of Hartford, Conn., Philadelphia's SMG and the DLR Group of Overland Park, Kan.

Petersen said the first question usually asked is whether the city has done a feasibility study, to which he tells them "no." Most are interested in the land and location, wanting to do a feasibility study prior to developing any construction plans.

City attorney Charlie Whitman suggested that those showing interest be whittled down to just a few, eventually choosing one that would be responsible for a feasibility study exclusive of the others. He added that the city will have to look at their history and success along with other factors before making a choice.

"We're looking for more of a convention center-type hotel," Warford said. "It's our goal to enhance the activity here at the Civic Center. There's a certain kind of convention, large one, that we haven't been able to attract. This should address that."

With Petersen considering retirement, Whitman said it is a good time to determine what form future management of the Civic Center will take. Peterson said that both Grand Forks' Alerus Center and the Fargodome have outsourced management since their inception.

"Last year, I provided the budget committee with the pros and cons of city management versus outsourcing," Petersen said. "The biggest advantage of outsourcing is routing, which is how the concert industry works."

Petersen said that there are management groups specializing in auditorium management and that having several facilities under one management firm allows for greater opportunities in booking events. It also allows the sharing of employees if facilities are within 200 to 300 miles of each other. Petersen said the Civic Center holds 60 to 70 events a year, twice that of the Alerus or the Fargodome.

Whitman advised that, should it be decided to outsource management, a company should be picked before a hotel is built.

Peterson said the main disadvantage of outsourcing management was the city's loss of control.

Expansion plans also have to be tied closely to what happens with the construction of a hotel, Petersen said. He noted there are building improvements such as a new floor for the Civic Center, emergency generator and additional restrooms, which will need to be addressed in the near future.

Then there are several amenities that are in the works, including coliseum- type seating at the north end of the building, which would increase capacity from 8,400 to 10,000, a food court on the north end of the Civic Center, additional meeting rooms, a ballroom (either an addition or conversion of the Exhibit Hall) and skyboxes.

Petersen said the floor has not been replaced since the building was built in 1967, and that rebar and mesh are beginning to show. He estimated replacement at just under $1 million unless it's decided to incorporate ice-making equipment, bringing the cost to $3.2 million.

Bringing Civic Center seating to 10,000 is integral to attracting many events, Petersen said, and it would mean removing the balcony at the north end. He also said that, before the food court on the south side of the building was constructed, annual revenues from food sales were $240,000 to $270,000. After it was built, revenue increased to $600,000. Petersen said he believes a northside food court also would be a revenue generator. He estimated construction at $3.4 million.

Board member Dick Tschider suggested that improvements be divided into basics, such as the floor, and amenities, like the ballroom, and that these be prioritized and tied to specific years for budgeting.

Petersen said he thinks that expansion will have to wait. "I believe expansion will have to wait until we see what hotel, if any, that we have some interest shown. That could change the scope of our expansion plans," he said.

Before the committee's next meeting, tentatively scheduled for Jan. 11, Petersen asked committee members -- Warford, Tschider, Sandi Tabor, Dan Hovland, Peter Welk and Bill Daniels -- to tour the facility. The committee will attempt to meet every two weeks and provide the city commission with recommendations on the future of the Civic Center by the end of March.


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