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Public opinion dominates Alerus Center discussion

Concerns about public acceptance of Grand Forks' Alerus Center dominated Thursday's meeting of a task force set up to improve the city-owned events center.

Concerns about public acceptance of Grand Forks' Alerus Center dominated Thursday's meeting of a task force set up to improve the city-owned events center.

Some task force members went so far as to suggest the facility put together some sort of public relations department, though others, such as City Council President Hal Gershman, felt that that would just add to expenses.

"The truth should speak for itself," he said, referring to the greater concern for most task force members, which is the way the Alerus Center reports its economic impact.

Those figures have long been vulnerable to attacks from critics who have questioned everything from the amount of money concertgoers are estimated to have spent in town to the inclusion of weddings held at the center, which seemed to imply that wedding banquets would not exist had the building not existed.

Economic impact is an estimate of how much bigger the area's economy grew because of the events held there. Because the Alerus Center has lost money, requiring additional city subsidies, in most of the years since it opened in 2001, the economic impact has been used to demonstrate that the city still is better off despite those losses.

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Or as Council Vice President Eliot Glassheim put it: "Am I doing better by losing $200,000, or should I cut it off?"

The answer to that question is important because the $80 million Alerus Center is the city's biggest investment.

Questioned impact

But it's hard to have an answer that satisfies many of the critics because of the suspicion that the economic impact figures aren't accurate. UND's Bureau of Business and Economic Research assembled those numbers and now is working to revamp the way it calculates the figures with input from the task force.

Bureau Director David Flynn defended his work. "I've been asked a question and I answered the question," he said. "If people aren't happy with the outcome -- and I think this is why the committee is meeting -- then we need to ask better questions.

"I've never manipulated numbers on behalf of a client," he replied to the implied criticism.

For example, when the Alerus Center commission asked UND to calculate the total economic impact -- Flynn did not compile the original figures -- it did not ask to exclude events the city had before the building existed.

Even now, task force members are divided between those that do want the exclusions and those that say even events that had existed prior now attract more people who spend more.

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Council members Mike McNamara and Terry Bjerke said excluding prior events would silence the critics, such as themselves.

Gershman and Park Board President Bill Hutchison said they're not so sure about that. There have always been wedding banquets, they said, but the ones they've been to at the Alerus Center are much, much bigger.

Confusion

Along with disagreements over figures, the contradictory way the Alerus Center reports finances also worried task force members.

For example, the events center reported in February 2009 that it had made $15,000 the previous year, but then revealed that that's before the $469,000 loss in the concert fund. So, as far as taxpayers are concerned, there were no profits.

"We're in the black if you don't count this loss," was how Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Julie Rygg summed it up.

On the other hand, for some task force members, public acceptance was a lesser concern.

"Does it really help the operations if we try to foster acceptance of the Alerus?" Council member Doug Christensen asked. "We already have the Alerus."

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In other words: It's not going away.

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to ttran@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: DAVID FLYNNHAL GERSHMAN
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