BISMARCK — A herd of Jamestown-area lawmakers who aimed to provide public grant funding to a proposed buffalo-themed amusement park has been stopped in its tracks. Despite the setback, supporters of building the roadside attraction say the project is still very much alive and ready to stampede forward.
The Buffalo City Park, envisioned for an empty field off Interstate 94 in Jamestown, would feature bison-themed rides, attractions and entertainment venues, according to previous reporting by The Jamestown Sun. The prospect of building on publicly owned land and receiving financial backing from the state has local developers excited about the plan, but the pitch failed to convince enough legislators to get through the state Senate.
Both chambers of the Legislature passed the budget for the state Commerce Department on Wednesday, April 28, without a conditional $5 million carveout for the proposed park project after the majority of senators demanded the funding be struck from the bill. The House of Representatives previously approved setting the money aside.
Opponents of the allocation viewed it as reckless spending that shouldn't pass the smell test in a fiscally conservative lawmaking body. Sen. Nicole Poolman, R-Bismarck, said, "the bar for (spending) taxpayer dollars can't be that low," noting the Legislature needs to "repair the guardrails" for giving money to ambitious enterprises.
Jamestown Republican Sen. Terry Wanzek, a leading supporter of the plan, said he felt dejected and frustrated after his colleagues extinguished the funding. Wanzek said he still believes the project could be "transformational" for the eastern part of the state.
Under the proposal whacked Wednesday, park developers would have been required to successfully sell the project to money managers and secure a $60 million investment from the State Investment Board to build the facility.
Those startup costs would have come via recently passed legislation that taps part of the Legacy Fund, a voter-approved oil tax savings account, for investment in North Dakota businesses and projects. Then, park backers would have to come up with $5 million in private funding before unlocking the state's matching endowment.
Brian Lunde, a local volunteer promoter for the project, told Forum News Service he's confident the park will come to fruition. Getting the $5 million from the state would have been nice, he said, but it was never a core piece of the funding blueprint.
Lunde said the park's development team will finish the planning phase in four or five months and then go after the $60 million investment from the public investment board. Supporters will also run a local fundraising campaign, he added.
If all goes right, Lunde said, developers could break ground on the project next spring and open the park in 2024 or 2025.
"Now it gets real," said Lunde, who conceives of the park as a "tourism gateway" to Medora's western-themed attractions and other draws along the well-traveled highway.
Republican Gov. Doug Burgum said tourism projects like the proposed park present a major opportunity for diversifying North Dakota's economy, but he noted the state shouldn't become the majority owner in what ought to be private enterprises.
"Knowing the passion that people have for the project... if they bring that to fundraising in the private sector, I have every reason to believe they could be successful," Burgum said.