Years after playing hockey at UND, Engelstad donated $104M to build 'the finest hockey arena of its kind'
InForum history columnist Curt Eriksmoen continues the story of Ralph Engelstad, the namesake for the North Dakota Fighting Hawks' home arena.
Editor's note: This is the second in a series of stories from InForum history columnist on the life of Ralph Engelstad. Catch up by reading Eriksmoen's story from last week on Engelstad's early life.
GRAND FORKS — North Dakota’s largest monetary donation by any single individual towards an institutional project was for the construction of a hockey arena at the University of North Dakota. In 1998, Ralph Engelstad, a wealthy Las Vegas hotel and casino owner, donated $100 million to UND to build the arena. When the construction of the arena was completed, Engelstad increased the amount of the gift to $104 million. It was called "the finest hockey arena of its kind in the world.”
Engelstad was a hockey player for UND and a 1954 graduate. After establishing a profitable construction company in Grand Forks, he relocated to Las Vegas in 1959 where he made a fortune owning and operating the Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino. In later life, he donated hundreds of millions of dollars to many different institutions and causes. He made his first million dollars in 1959 at the age of 29 and, by 1989, his worth was estimated to be $300 million.
Bruce Gjovig, in his book "Innovative Entrepreneurs from North Dakota," described Engelstad as a man of contrasts. “A private man who led a public life. An uncomplicated man whose days were complicated. A generous man who wouldn’t give an inch on certain issues. A man whose actions attracted a spotlight he despised. And, a rich man who pinched pennies.”
After restoring and expanding “a seedy motel” in Las Vegas, the Flamingo Capri Motel, Engelstad renamed it the Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino in 1979. The Capri opened in 1959 as a 180-room motel with some gambling in a small casino. This complex was purchased by Engelstad in 1971, to which he added a larger casino in 1972. In 1974, he added a three-story wing to the east end of the motel and also built additions on the north side. To make room for those motel additions, Engelstad moved four motel buildings of the original Capri to his other property, the Kone Kai Motel. The next year, he sold the Kone Kai for $1.2 million, which was later renamed the Klondike Hotel and Casino.
In 1977, Engelstad added a 19-story Imperial Palace Tower and, on Nov. 1, 1979, opened a new casino and renamed the entire property the Imperial Palace, which now had 650 rooms. It also had 10 restaurants, nightly entertainment, a sports book (a drive-through betting booth), a wedding chapel, and an auto museum. To make room for the Palace’s entrance, Engelstad demolished the Flamingo Capri’s casino. “The Imperial Palace was the only Asian-themed resort on the (Las Vegas) Strip, and was popular among middle-class and value-conscious guests.”
In 1982 and again in 1987, Engelstad added hotel towers, increasing the room count to 2,637, which made it the second-largest sole proprietorship hotel in the world. Running this large enterprise required 2,600 employees, and having good, competent, and hard-working employees was an important part of what Engelstad believed to be a key to his success. He considered his employees as his extended family and treated them well. He instituted a 32-hour work week, and at the Imperial opened the first medical facility in a casino for employees and guests.
Another thing he liked to do for his employees was to throw themed parties. However, his choice of themes proved to be one of his biggest mistakes. On April 20 in 1986 and again in 1988, Engelstad “hosted parties to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s birthday” at a private celebration in his casino. There was a public uproar when word got out about those parties. Engelstad publicly apologized for the parties saying they were “stupid, insensitive, and held in bad taste.” He also published full-page apologies in Las Vegas newspapers. Nevertheless, the Nevada Gaming Commission fined Engelstad $1.5 million “for actions that damaged the reputation and image of Nevada’s gaming industry.”
Engelstad was an inveterate collector of things that held a historical significance. He had obtained the personal papers of General George S. Patton from 1918 to 1944, which were valued “at nearly $1.5 million” when he donated them to the Chester Fritz Library at UND in 1997. Since he was half German, he also collected many German historical items, of which some Nazi memorabilia were included. One of those items was Hitler’s 1939 Mercedes parade car. This made his apology to the Jewish community appear to be insincere.
Engelstad’s biggest obsession as a collector was automobiles, especially those that were personally owned by celebrities or other notable people in the world. Besides Hitler’s Mercedes, Engelstad had in his collection automobiles owned by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Al Capone, Cecil B. DeMille, General Douglas MacArthur, and Benito Mussolini. He also owned 52 Duesenbergs, the largest collection in the world. Engelstad collected more than 500 rare and antique automobiles and 200 of them were put on display from 1981 to 2017 in a showroom/museum on the fifth floor of the parking garage of his casino.
In 1996, Engelstad and Bill Bennett, the owner of the Sahara Hotel and Casino, built the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for $72 million. It has become one of the most popular racetracks on the NASCAR circuit. In 1998, they sold the racetrack for over $200 million. In 1997, Engelstad opened a second Imperial Palace resort in Biloxi, Mississippi. This facility with over 1,000 rooms also includes ten restaurants, six movie theaters, and other amenities, including a large casino and nightly entertainment. The Imperial Palace in Biloxi made national news in 2005 when it opened its doors for free to FEMA workers and homeless employee families for months following Hurricane Katrina.
Engelstad’s renewal of a close association with UND became apparent in 1988 when the name of the Winter Sports Center was renamed the Ralph Engelstad Arena. In 1997, he made his first major contribution to UND by donating General Patton’s papers along with portraits of the U.S. Supreme Court justices. Engelstad had a close relationship with UND President Tom Clifford, dating back to the early 1950s when Clifford was dean of the school of business and Engelstad was one of his students. This close friendship undoubtedly helped to facilitate Engelstad's donations to the university.
The fact that Engelstad, a wealthy casino/hotel owner would be making another contribution to UND in 1998 was not a surprise, but the monetary size of the donation was jaw-dropping — Engelstad pledged $100 million to construct a new hockey arena. This was the largest amount of money ever donated by one person for a single institutional project in North Dakota. However, it was only the beginning of donations by Engelstad and his foundation for facilities and causes at UND, Grand Forks, and other places in the Red River Valley. Englestad also pledged large amounts of money for facilities and causes in Nevada.
InForum history columnist Curt Eriksmoen will conclude the Ralph Engelstad story, and the fight that ensued over the changing of UND’s sports team logo, next week.