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OUR OPINION: Civic/Aurora votes marked birth of 'new' GF

Grand Forks' recovery from the 1997 flood often is called a national model. The city picked itself up after suffering an epic knockdown, then came back better than before.

Civic Auditorium
The outer walls of the Grand Forks Civic Auditorium still remain as construction crews demolish the building Tuesday afternoon. Herald photo by Sarah Kolberg.

Grand Forks' recovery from the 1997 flood often is called a national model. The city picked itself up after suffering an epic knockdown, then came back better than before.

But the flood wasn't the first time Grand Forks showed this can-do spirit. That spirit also had surfaced a few months before. The earlier event has been overshadowed by the flood, but it stands out in hindsight as one of the first signs of the new Grand Forks.

The date was Dec. 3, 1996. Do you remember?

If not, a walk past the crews demolishing the Civic Auditorium in downtown Grand Forks will bring it all back.

On Dec. 3, 1996, Grand Forks voters went to the polls to reaffirm their decision to replace the Civic. The replacement building they approved was, of course, the Aurora, now called the Alerus Center.


Today a fixture on the Grand Forks landscape, the Alerus Center remains a source of controversy. But the recent debates pale in comparison with those in 1996 and earlier, when Grand Forks spent years arguing over whether to build the building at all.

Let's use the occasion of the Civic's demolition to remember.

And the first thing to remember is that throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Grand Forks was in no hurry to change. "Back in the 1950s, we got the air base, and then we quit," said City Council President Hal Gershman in a 2007 story.

"The effect was that people sat back and were satisfied with small growth. Because of the harsh conditions at times, survival defined North Dakota. Survival was success."

Nothing illustrates that era of economic complacency better than the Columbia Road Overpass debate. For 10 long years, Grand Forks argued about whether to build the overpass, an artery so vital that it's impossible to imagine Grand Forks without it today. Then when voters finally did approve, they agreed to only one lane in each direction, forcing another project to widen the lanes to four.

The Aurora debate started the same way. "The quest to bring some kind of an event or convention complex to Grand Forks actually dates to 1984," a Herald story recounted in 2001.

"At that time, there was a vote to expand the Grand Forks Civic Auditorium to accommodate larger events and conventions. But the measure lost by a narrow margin.

"Then in 1992, Mayor Mike Polovitz initiated a citizens committee to try to form support for a new convention center (with no arena) on the city's south side. That proposal finally went to a vote but was rejected with a resounding no."


Just over two years later. Polovitz and others tried again. Another committee was formed, one that learned from the earlier efforts' mistakes. The committee expanded the proposal to include an arena, tied the proposed facility to UND and made other important changes.

In November 1995, voters approved, 7,306 to 4,898.

But the story didn't end there.

Because 1996 saw the project's cost estimates soar. In a farsighted move, Mayor Pat Owens and other city leaders decided to put the suddenly more expensive center to a second vote.

"It's all come down to this," a Herald headline read Dec. 1, 1996.

"Twelve years of uproar about the Aurora will be decided Tuesday."

On that Tuesday -- Dec. 3, 1996 -- voters again decided in the Aurora's favor. And as a direct if long-delayed result, the Civic Auditorium this week is coming down.

There's no doubt that the flood helped jump-start Grand Forks. But there's also no doubt that Grand Forks was primed to take the charge, as the Aurora/Alerus Center votes show.


By 1995 and 1996, survival alone no longer was success. The city wanted to prosper and excel -- and in order to do so, it was ready to take a leap of faith.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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