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Bemidji events center effort could learn from The Ralph

GRAND FORKS, N.D. The view is imposing. The Ralph Engelstad Arena is off by itself, surrounded by parking lots as one drives U.S. Highway 2 as it skirts north Grand Forks. And while there is plenty of parking, be ready to pay $10 for something ki...

GRAND FORKS, N.D. The view is imposing. The Ralph Engelstad Arena is off by itself, surrounded by parking lots as one drives U.S. Highway 2 as it skirts north Grand Forks. And while there is plenty of parking, be ready to pay $10 for something kind of close and $5 for something remote.

The $100 million Ralph Engelstad Arena, completed in 2001, is home to the University of North Dakota hockey team, the Fighting Sioux. And the Sioux this weekend hosted Bemidji State University's men's hockey team in a Saturday-Sunday afternoon series.

The Beavers came away empty-handed, losing 5-1 on Saturday but holding firm on Sunday, losing only 1-0 with less than 5 minutes left as left wing Andrew Kozek took a feed from a prone center T.J. Oshie at the slot and fired the puck past BSU goalie Orlando Alamano's glove hand.

The North Dakota fans erupted; the noise was deafening. The goal was all the Sioux needed to extend its unbeaten streak to 13 games, the longest in the nation. A few minutes later, the win was sealed and fireworks burst over each goal.

The mostly North Dakota supportive crowd (judging by the hundreds of Fighting Sioux hockey jerseys on fans all about The Ralph) went home happy; those of us from Bemidji left unhappy but satisfied that the Beavers had played a courageous game against a potential national NCAA Division I champion.


Watching the game, however, on a winter Sunday afternoon leaves no doubt what University of North Dakota hockey and especially The Ralph means to the greater Grand Forks area. Posted attendance for Sunday's game was 11,043 only 363 short of its posted capacity for ice hockey. And some there told us Sunday was an orderly crowd it's much different if fellow WCHA opponents Minnesota or Denver are playing the Sioux.

The Ralph Engelstad Arena might be called opulent especially in its monstrous size and that it contains thousands of UND's logo, the Sioux Indian head that is inlaid in marble in the floor, in the carpet every five feet on the Suite level, on each row of seats in the arena, and elsewhere.

Currently the subject of NCAA rulings that the Fighting Sioux logo be removed as offensive to American Indians, it is clear that doing so at The Ralph would cost millions of dollars, let alone being something the arena's benefactor, the late Ralph Engelstad, forbade from happening in his building.

Still, the success of the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks can be studied as a model for the Bemidji Regional Events Center now being sought in the Minnesota Legislature with bonding and a sales tax extension.

Pegged at $50 million, Bemidji's project is half that of The Ralph, but it would also be more inclusive to include a convention center and events center space. The Ralph is basically a hockey arena, but it also hosts concerts and like events, including the upcoming 2008 World Men's Curling Championship.

Bemidji's proposed center could learn much from The Ralph, albeit on a much smaller scale. BSU would be the anchor tenant in a Bemidji Regional Events Center. As such, the success of the hockey program should be highlighted as one walks in the facility. The Ralph is adorned with statuary and photos of Sioux greats of the past, giving a sense of history and pride before even first puck is dropped.

At the main entrance once past the ticket gate, the Sioux Shop is an open air market gates surround it but no walls, windows or doors in the classic sense. More than an hour before Sunday's start, the Sioux Shop was literally filled with people, many of them already sporting a Sioux hockey jersey in white or green ($79 apiece, thank you). The shop had a huge variety of themed sweatshirts, polo shirts, T-shirts, jackets, pullovers, etc., etc., etc. About two dozen different sorts of caps could be had, including one with pull-down earflaps with the Fighting Sioux logo.

Bobblehead UND hockey players, miniature hockey sticks, several types of game pucks, all sorts of souvenir items had traffic going nonstop through the store and lines five or six deep at each of three registers.


What if a Bemidji Regional Events Center contained a similar store, with a wide assortment of BSU items but also some Bemidji-themed and Minnesota-themed products? Done well and privately run, such a shop could be operated in an events center every day, not just game day, just as the Sioux Shop is open each day.

A massive food court encircling The Ralph is also unique, offering all types of food from hot dogs to shrimp plates. And the facility also offers beer and hard liquor drinks. Between periods, a band plays to entertain those waiting in line for their hot dogs or cocktails.

A middle floor is encircled with 48 luxury suites, a floor that needs a special pass or ticket even to enter with posted hosts to check. Each room has a food area with table, serving area and refrigeration.

A rail offers a spot to watch the game, or just beyond is a seating area for each luxury suite that extends below the suite and is part of the public arena seating. Plans for the Bemidji events center call for 25 luxury suites, and interest is high already as BSU officials say that 20 of them at $30,000 each are already pledged.

With BSU figuring on 3,000 or so seats, one wonders if the Beavers can draw a capacity crowd for all games. That depends on how the events center is marketed, some said Sunday.

"Some 3,000 to 4,000 season tickets are sold outside of Grand Forks," says Virg Foss, retired Grand Forks Herald hockey writer, from his perch in The Ralph's two-tier press box. "UND marketed its program throughout the area from Devils Lake to Crookston to Winnipeg."

It shows in the suites purchased at The Ralph, representing firms from Fargo to Devils Lake. And if those folks aren't at the game, firms use their suites for other groups in their communities, from Boy Scouts to peewee hockey teams.

"All these people have a meal here, buy gas here, and some stay the weekend here," says Foss. The advent of The Ralph has been an asset to the Grand Forks economy, he notes.


And the same could happen in Bemidji and, more importantly, put BSU's hockey program on a firm ground as it seeks WCHA membership at some point. Currently, WCHA teams have agreed to schedule BSU over the next several years as the Bemidji community works build a WCHA-capable arena.

"Dave Hakstol has been really supportive of scheduling BSU," Foss said. "At 100 miles, BSU is the closest Division I hockey team so it makes sense each year." While both games this year were played in Grand Forks, the series is usually split with a game in each city. "The BSU program has a lot of history, and it would be sad to lose that."

The Ralph can't be replicated in Bemidji we can't afford it and we don't have a benefactor like Ralph Engelstad.

But it does offer a unique perspective on how such a facility, if done well and marketed well, can make a major impact on the university's profile, on broadening the community's entertainment and convention visibility, on recharging the local economy and in improving the so-called "quality of place" that is viewed as key in attracting and retaining people who hold well-paid jobs in our developing knowledge-based economy. A visit to Grand Forks should include a stop at The Ralph. See for yourself.


Brad Swenson is the Bemidji Pioneer's Opinion page and political editor.

The Pioneer and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

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