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The show goes on for the Fritz -- for now

Betty Allan is the Director of the Chester Fritz Auditorium. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

The Chester Fritz Auditorium is in its 40s and, like others around that age, it's had some work done.

Betty Allan is the director of the concert hall on the UND campus, the site of graduations and rock shows alike. Beyond some refurbishing here and there, she says, the aesthetic of the theater area is original to the hall's 1972 opening. Other elements, thankfully, are not.

One example Allen points to is the "giraffe carpeting," done in retro orange, gold and brown, built into the lobbies of the auditorium and torn out within the next 15 years.

"The only thing missing was the avocado green to really make it true '70s," she said.

Color schemes aside, there are other things that could use a nip and tuck.

There are windows and doors to be swapped out. The motors have died on the multi-story-tall curtains on the sides of the theater, designed to adjust the hall acoustics. And whenever a light bulb burns out high above the theater seats, Allen says members of her team "have to go out on a nationwide hunt" just to track down a replacement.

"Some of those things need to be taken care of, because everything is becoming obsolete, stuff has changed and it's just impossible to find," she said. Staff at the Fritz have updated where they can to help the auditorium operate more efficiently—the show must go on.

But, though many hold it dear, the auditorium holds an uncertain place in visions of the campus future.

'Reset the clock'

The UND master plan for facilities is a wide-view document that attempts to chart the next 30 years of life for the physical shape of campus. The plan, which Allen said mostly formed without input from either her or her staff, identifies the Fritz as a possibility to be torn down and replaced in the coming decades. University leaders have questioned if the auditorium is too large, too little used and too expensive to upkeep in the years to come.

Allen draws issue with at least one of those points—she says the capacity of the auditorium has been overstated in the planning process by almost 500 seats at 2,800, what Allen says is the equivalent of another balcony for the auditorium.

She questioned the intent of the estimate cited by planning firm Sasaki when putting together the 30-year document, adding the discrepancy "seems to me that they're trying to play their game" by overstating the size of the auditorium—and then citing the large size as one reason why the facility might be worth replacing.

"That's a mistake that they made in the master plan that a little fact checking could have caught easily," she said. "But it's not like anybody ever came and asked us how many seats there were."

The planning firm stated one option for campus as including a hall with a target capacity of 750-1000 seats, still far below the actual number in the Fritz. If the hall is kept as is, Sasaki recommended seeking a third party to run it, a move that would be a departure from the current in-house management scheme. Sasaki also said their research on campus had found support for a smaller recital hall "perhaps located closer" school's other fine arts buildings.

It's important to note there's no immediate push to make large changes to the auditorium. After all, the master plan is intended to follow a 30-year arc.

Mike Pieper, UND head of facilities, said there are "no midterm or short-term plans" for the Fritz right now besides maintaining its physical status quo.

"But," he said, "if and when the university no longer wanted to keep it open and operated, we're looking at what would the fallback scenario be."

One idea would be to build a new facility connected to the Hughes Fine Arts Center, the academic building that houses gallery space and visual art programs. Another option would be the construction of a smaller hall along the English Coulee in close proximity, if not directly attached to the Burtness Theater, the performance center for UND theatre arts programs. Regardless, Pieper said, the university is interested in maintaining a sort of "arts corridor" along the coulee that keeps intact the grouping of any larger auditorium with those academic buildings and the North Dakota Museum of Art.

Pieper said the Fritz might need more than $13.3 million in renewal work over the next decade, a sum he said would "basically reset the clock" on the auditorium's useful lifespan.

But that money doesn't include the costs of other work intended to go beyond just restoring the building. That might include modernizing certain features to make the Fritz more attractive to booking agents and event promoters, such as adding food and beverage services

Open questions

Alice Brekke, the university's outgoing vice president for finance and operations, led a working group in 2016 to examine those traits. The group distributed a survey to users of the Fritz throughout the community, soliciting feedback as to how the venue could be improved.

Brekke said the survey data reaffirmed the desire for continued use, which allowed the group to move on to the "main question" of how to increase programming options and attendance.

"That's where we're focusing our time and energy on right now," she said, identifying those areas as the top goals for the near to mid-future.

The university might soon explore "operational improvements" to the auditorium, Brekke said. That could mean beefing up marketing for events or offering food and beverage services to guests, something not historically found at the Fritz.

Brekke is on a phased retirement plan, offered as part of last year's employee buyouts. She expects to wind down her work by the end of the calendar year, which means many of these decisions will likely be guided by whoever follows her as head of campus finance.

Still, in the longer term, Brekke says the university has to weigh the larger matters of the auditorium. That means either finding a way to devote funding for upkeep and running improvements or, perhaps farther down the road, deciding to start again with a new hall.

For now and the foreseeable future, Brekke said, those remain open questions.

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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