As the Fargodome rolls to rock, Grand Forks’ Alerus Center is kickin’ it with country concerts
Managers of North Dakota's two biggest concert venues discuss philosophy, challenges
FARGO — A look at recent and upcoming shows at the two biggest concert venues in North Dakota may lead you to believe that the Alerus Center in Grand Forks is a little bit country and the Fargodome is a little bit rock ‘n roll.
In the last year, the Alerus has gone country and found great success, bringing in its best and third-best-attended shows ever, Luke Combs (22,000) and Morgan Wallen (19,500), as well as Nashville stars Eric Church and Brantley Gilbert. Hank Williams Jr. performs at the Alerus May 29, Alan Jackson July 30, Thomas Rhett Sept. 29, Chris Stapleton Oct. 6 and Carrie Underwood Oct. 27.
Meanwhile, the Fargodome welcomed back Elton John for the fourth time in March with about 18,500 attending. Other Fargodome shows over the last year include hard rockers Guns N’ Roses, Slipknot and Shinedown as well as contemporary Christian acts TobyMac and MercyMe.
Those who book the shows say it may look like a venue leans a certain way, but the truth is more nuanced.
Factors at play booking concerts
“It’s not that the Fargodome isn’t trying to get country, it’s just how it worked out,” said Fargodome General Manager Rob Sobolik.
His counterpart at the Alerus, General Manager Anna Rosburg, said the Grand Forks facility does well with country, but also does well with rock, like last month’s Alice Cooper concert.
“Bringing in diverse content is important,” she says. “Touring is cyclical. Right now it seems like there are a lot more country acts ready to get out on the road.”
Sobolik said he often hears what shows people think he should bring in. Likewise, when a big show like country star Chris Stapleton adds a date at the Alerus instead of the Fargodome, his ears are burning.
“Oh, I hear it all of the time,” he says.
The Fargodome budgets for six to eight concerts a year — not including Happy Harry's RibFest — but is flexible enough to do more.
Before the pandemic, 2020 was shaping up to be a good year for concerts at the Fargodome. Country star Jason Aldean played there in February and shows by Cher, Elton John, Maroon 5, Guns N' Roses and MercyMe were scheduled to follow. Those shows all canceled due to the pandemic, but other than Cher, all have rescheduled.
Sobolik regularly hears from booking agents looking to set up tour dates, but he has to find the shows that are the best fit for the taxpayer-funded facility.
“We look at most every opportunity, but it has to fit well with the Fargodome schedule, which is very busy,” he said.
Annually, about half of the Fargodome's weekends are booked with sporting events, trade shows and conferences.
Concerts, amateur sports and North Dakota State University football games are the three biggest draws for the building, with Bison football accounting for 20-30% of annual attendance and concerts and amateur sports drawing 10-15% each.
Even if a Friday night is open the day before a football game, the turnaround makes for a tight fit, Sobolik said.
“It’s really hard on a building, really hard on a limited staff to turn a 20,000 (attendance) concert into a 18,000 (attendance) football game in a day,” he said.
The Fargodome did that for Taylor Swift in 2013 when she played on a Friday night. The venue was turned around for a 4 p.m. football game the next day.
“We are very cautious of those now,” Sobolik says.
Fargo Dome Authority President Michael Ellingson said like many other employers, it's hard to find people to work Fargodome events.
“There are only so many days a year to have events and the bigger events, the more beneficial,” Ellingson said.
Sobolik said late July and August are usually the most open weeks at the Fargodome, and he took advantage of that to book pop rock rapper Machine Gun Kelly on July 27 and Maroon 5 on Aug. 12. The former will be set up for about 12,000 and the latter around 20,000.
Concerts impact the community
Concerts aren’t just big for the facilities, but also for their respective communities.
“They’re worth about a million apiece. They’re huge,” said Charley Johnson, president and CEO of The Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Johnson's organization studied the impact concerts have on the area, singling out a few dates in 2018 and 2019, the biggest of which was Pink in May of 2019. The singer drew 22,100 people, of which 76%, or 15,960, were from out of town. The FMCVB study showed that those out-of-towners contributed about $2.15 million to the local economy through purchases like hotels, meals and drinks.
Johnson said this year's March 19 Elton John show led to 91% of the area's 5,840 available hotel rooms being filled. All of the guests weren’t at the concert, but for comparison, the night before the show hotels were at 72%.
“That’s huge,” Johnson says of the concert’s impact, noting that the average hotel room was $136 the night of the concert.
“Fargo has become a destination city and we need to be as competitive as possible,” said Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney.
“We need to have events that pull people in. Concerts are a big element in the success of the Fargodome,” the mayor said, adding that he was at the March Elton John show.
While the Alerus Center in Grand Forks has been pulling in some big shows this year and last year, that wasn’t always the case. When Rosburg stepped in as general manager in 2017, she said not only was the schedule empty of concerts, she had to rebuild reputations with booking agents.
“We inherited a blank calendar. The building had been a bit quiet,” she said. “We have to make sure we have good relationships… Hosting one good-selling show opens the door for more.”
The shows started coming back and this year still holds dates for five big concerts.
“I’d love to see two more this year,” she says, adding that four to seven concerts in 2023 would be “healthy.”
Sobolik also said having good relationships with tour bookers is key.
“The Fargodome has a fantastic reputation in the touring industry among promoters. The Fargodome is a pretty big building for a relatively small market,” he said. “Fargo has been successful with a lot of artists but by no means is it a must-play market.”
That small market can seem even smaller when a facility 75 miles away is looking at booking the same shows.
“There’s definitely competition with the Fargodome,” Rosburg said. “They’ve been doing well. Geographically they’re in a great location at the intersection of I-94 and I-29. Our challenge is to get acts to go a little bit out of their way.”
She adds that the competition isn’t cutthroat.
“If it’s down to a show coming to North Dakota at all, we’ll cheer for team North Dakota,” she said.
“We both want to have all of the shows we can get,” he said. “The reality is, you’re not going to get every show.”