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Funding urged for Heritage Center

Posted 12/14/09 (Mon)

By Brian Duggen, Bismarck Tribune

Members of the State Historical Society urged lawmakers Monday to support a bill that would provide $30 million for an expansion of the state Heritage Center.

Lawmakers on the Education and Environment Division of the House Appropriations Committee heard testimony on a bill modeled on the governor's budget that includes $18 million in state funds and $12 million in private donations to pay for the expansion.

More than a dozen supporters came to the committee, pushing lawmakers to support the expansion, calling it the "Smithsonian on the Prairie."

The committee took no action Monday.

"We've got a big budget that we're going to have to deal with," said Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, chairman of the subcommittee. "It's been discussed for several sessions, and I suspect it will continue to get some discussion with leadership and whatever, and we'll just have to see how everything comes out."

Officials from the State Historical Society are pushing lawmakers to increase the state's funding share from $18 million to $40 million to complete the Heritage Center's master-planned expansion for a total cost of about $52 million.

Virginia Nelsen, the executive director of the historical society, said there are $2.5 million in signed pledges for donations so far, including a $500,000 gift from Basin Electric Power Cooperative, $250,000 from Forum Communications and $500,000 from a Seattle couple with North Dakota roots.
She said more donors would likely sign on if the Legislature passes the bill.

Merl Paaverud, the director of the North Dakota State Historical Society, said it would be cheaper to fund the entire $52 million project now.

"We're hoping to get authority to complete the master plan," Paaverud said. "This is a great start, but we'd like to do it all, rather than do it in segments."

Gary Reetz, a Minneapolis-based architect working on the Heritage Center expansion, said if the Legislature approved all the funds for the master plan this session, the project could be complete in summer 2012, two years before North Dakota's 125th anniversary of statehood.

The current bill includes the $30 million for a new entrance to the Heritage Center, new galleries and a renovated auditorium that would be wheelchair accessible.

Former Gov. Art Link submitted written testimony, but was not at the hearing. Link said he and his wife, Grace, are giving $100,000 to the expansion project, calling it a "legacy project" for Gov. John Hoeven.

Owen Piehl, 7, also asked that lawmakers fund the center's expansion, especially after visiting the center's dinosaur exhibit last month.

"I really like dinosaurs, and I try to learn about them whenever I can," Owen said.

"If the Heritage Center were bigger, then I could see more of the stuff that lived here more than a million years ago."

Rep. Frank Wald, R-Dickinson, heard all he needed to hear.

"I was apprehensive, but you just sold me," Wald said, laughing.

The bill is HB1018.