The Alerus Center recently reached the 20-year mark serving as Greater Grand Forks’ destination and entertainment venue. Much has changed at the venue over the years, but a look back at headlining concerts and events only underscores the center’s role in the region.
Since the facility opened in 2001, more than 5 million people have attended events, ranging from monster truck shows to rock and country concerts to comedians. Those events generate millions of dollars in economic activity. In 2018, 31 events totaled more than $6.3 million in direct spending -- money actually spent locally by event-goers -- in the region. In 2019, 46 events brought in $10.7 million. 2020 was a difficult year for most businesses, the Alerus Center included, which brought $3.3 million to the area. But those dollars stem from the dual nature of the facility, which at first, was called The Aurora.
“With our mission statement to drive economic impact and quality of life, that's really been kind of at the forefront of our strategy,” said Anna Rosburg, general manager. Rosburg works for Spectra, the Philadelphia-based venue management company, that operates the Alerus Center on behalf of the city.
Spectra began managing the Alerus Center in 2017. The company has worked to add more big-ticket draws to the facility. In 2018, there were 428 events there, and, in 2019, the number increased to 471. 2020 saw a significant drop, with many acts canceling or postponing their shows, but 323 events took place, many of them virtual.
“We've really been building our event loads,” Rosburg said. “Since (2017), with the team that we have in place and the resources that we have through corporate, it's been really important to us to focus on the ticketed events, such as the concerts, the family shows, that sort of thing. Because those really help drive visitors and overnight stays into our community.”
Country music singer Luke Combs will likely be the biggest-selling concert in the history of the Alerus Center. The show was set to happen in October last year, but was postponed to Sept. 17, due to the pandemic. More than 20,000 tickets have been sold for the show, which surpasses tickets sold for George Strait, in 2013.
Rounding out the top four concerts, after George Strait, more than 19,500 tickets were sold when Cher came to town in 2002. In 2018, nearly 17,000 people bought tickets to see Metallica; a concert that set records for food, drinks and merchandise sold.
Many acts and spectators have passed through the facility’s doors since the Alerus Center opened to the public for the first time in 2001, when the first act was the now-disgraced comedian Bill Cosby. All told, more than 2.5 million tickets have been issued for all events at the center, according to Rosburg, and have generated about $52 million in revenue. For concerts alone, more than 577,000 people have purchased a ticket, yielding over $28 million. But it takes a lot of work to bring a big name to the region.
Doing so, Rosburg said, means “the stars need to align,” in some respects. Who is touring, where they are going, how much the artist stands to make, and the company’s relationship with promoters in the industry all come into play. It took over a year to get Metallica, Rosburg said, and the center needed several engineering studies to be able to accommodate the weight of the band's setup. It’s the concert she is most proud of being able to bring to the region.
“There were so many different variables that could have had that event not happen,” she said.
Despite the headliners, the center hasn’t always been profitable. In 2017, the Alerus Center ran a $400,000 deficit, and, in 2019, a winter of heavy snow and bitter cold, drove utilities up. It’s a business that is difficult to be “right side up profitability-wise,” Rosburg said, but to Grand Forks City Council member Ken Vein, losses are offset by the economic impact generated.
Vein was the city’s engineer and Director of Public Works when the event center was in the planning stages in the early '90s. He said the city is “without question” better off with the facility than without. But getting the event center off the ground was a years-long, multi-vote process.
In 1984, Grand Fork voters responded in the negative when they were asked to expand the downtown Civic Auditorium, which was off North Fifth Street. Plans got rolling again in the early '90s under Mayor Mike Polovitz, and the design evolved from an event center with a basketball arena to a football-type stadium.
Voters OK’d spending up to $49 million on the project in 1995, along with a .75% sales tax and .25% food and lodging tax to pay for it. But the costs ballooned, and a second vote was held in 1996, when 53% voters approved spending more than that amount without a cap on the price tag. It was that second vote that Vein thought carried the most risk.
“I thought it was hard enough to get people to raise taxes for the first vote, when we thought it was going to be $49 million,” Vein said.
The budget for the project was eventually increased to about $81 million. Groups for and against the project were outspoken in their feelings and attended council meetings to speak, Vein said. But that wasn’t the only controversy.
Various locations for the building were proposed, with many north-end residents wanting it located near where the Ralph Engelstad Arena is now situated, but the name generated even more controversy. The city settled on the name “The Aurora” after getting input from the public. Other names were tossed about, including “The Grand,” “The Sunflake,” and “Sundog Stadium.” A 2011 Herald report notes the naming discussion got so heated the Grand Forks City Council had to delay the topic for a few weeks in 1996, to let people cool off.
Ultimately, the “The Aurora” wound up being a placeholder name for the building. In 2000, the city sold the naming rights to First National Bank, and, in May that year, The Aurora became the Alerus Center, when the bank changed its name to Alerus Financial. In September 2020, the bank committed $2 million to the facility in a deal that extends through 2031.
Despite past controversy, it is difficult to imagine Grand Forks without the Alerus Center. During the pandemic, the facility served as the only voting location in the county, and as a place for drive-up testing and vaccinating for COVID-19. For Vein, the benefit of the center is clear, not only in terms of entertainment, but in the dollars that flow through the city from business to business, because of it.
“The economic impact, from my point of view, that this has brought to the community in all aspects of shopping was huge,” he said. “Restaurants, hotels, motels, all of those, were big beneficiaries and all of them paid sales tax that came back to support it and to support the community.”