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Backers Pitch Heritage Center Expansion

Posted 12/14/09 (Mon)

By Janell Cole
Fargo Forum
State Capitol Bureau

BISMARCK — The North Dakota Heritage Center would become a “beacon on the prairie” and the “Smithsonian of the Plains” if it’s expanded, supporters told a House committee Monday.

The $30 million first phase of a 97,000 squarer-foot addition would be fronted by the Northern Lights Atrium, a large glass cube facing east toward the State Street entrance to the Capitol Grounds. If backers get the hoped-for appropriation from the Legislature, it would open in 2014, the state’s 125th birthday.

Supporters making the case to the House Appropriations’ Education and Environment Subcommittee ranged from 7-year-old Owen Walter Piehl, Menoken, N.D., who stood on a stool at the podium to read his testimony, to 91-year-old former Rep. Enoch Thorsgard, R-Northwood, whose plea was in a letter read to the committee.

Owen, who turns 8 next week, said, “If the Heritage Center were bigger, then I could see more of the stuff that lived here more than a million years ago. So, I hope that you decide to make the Heritage Center bigger, so I can see more and so can my brothers and friends.”

Thorsgard supported the original Heritage Center, finished in 1981, while in the Legislature from 1969-80.

Another ex-lawmaker, former Sen. Jack Olin, R-Dickinson, also said the state has the opportunity and obligation to build on the dream first realized 28 years ago.

The current Heritage Center doesn’t have exhibits presenting the state’s last 70 years because there’s no space in the gallery, said Claudia Berg, Historical Society expansion coordinator.

Representatives of businesses said the Heritage Center helps recruit professionals and executives to the state and is a highlight for prospective newcomers who want to know what cultural life they’ll have if they move here, said Dick Weber, Bismarck, a retired Basin Electric Power Cooperative executive now on the Medcenter One hospital board.

The Historical Society seeks $18 million in state general funds plus lawmakers’ approval to raise and spend an additional $12 million in donations and other funds, such as grants. Supporters said major business donors won’t make large pledges until they know the state has committed funds.

Bismarck resident Chuck Esser, a transplant from Seattle, and Bismarck native Kay Solberg Link, who move back to run a bed and breakfast, praised the Heritage Center as something that impresses visitors who didn’t know what to expect in North Dakota.

With an expansion, Esser said, “We’ll have a big surprise for them.”

Legislators didn’t take action Monday. The Historical Society budget will be considered in an overall context with other agencies’ appropriations requests.

Solberg Link is a daughter of longtime state Sen. I.E. “Esky” Solberg, Bismarck, and daughter-in-law of former Gov. Arthur Link, both of whom supported the original Heritage Center.

Committee member Rep. Kathy Hawken, R-Fargo, said afterward that because the state has a surplus, many people think it should be used for one-time investments such as the Heritage Center expansion.

Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, chairman of the subcommittee, said after the hearing that the Heritage Center request is among many large-ticket items in Gov. John Hoeven’s budget.

“The governor’s got an ambitious budget. By the same token, I’ve got guys at home saying, ‘Don’t spend it all,’ ” Skarphol said.