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Heritage Center Worth the Investment

Posted 1/13/09 (Tue)

Heritage Center worth the investment

Editorial in Sunday, December 21, 2008, Bismarck Tribune

The North Dakota Heritage Center should be taken to the next level.

The plan has been set out. A "Smithsonian on the Prairie" would be created by adding a 97,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art addition to the North Dakota Heritage Center, in time for the 125th anniversary of statehood in 2014. It would cost $52.4 million.

Gov. John Hoeven has put $18 million into his budget for the project. He's asking that the State Historical Society of North Dakota and its foundation raise $12 million, and that the project be set up so that it can be done in phases. That would, if passed by the Legislature, give the whole project a budget authority of $30 million.

Or the Legislature could fund a bigger or smaller share of the $50 million.

Lawmakers have a range of essential services and key priorities that need funding. Those must be taken care of first. But a $1.2 billion surplus suggests that the Legislature has the funds to go at least as far as Hoeven's budget largess for the Heritage Center expansion. Just how far should depend upon a balance with other legitimate needs.

The expansion proposed today seems as grand as that original museum proposal must have seemed 25 years ago. That museum has become a source of pride for the people of North Dakota. It's a critical element in the state's tourism industry. For Bismarck-Mandan, it's a compelling feature for visitors and local citizens. For all of North Dakota, the Heritage Center and its staff interpret living on the northern plains - past, present and future.

The expansion proposal includes new gallery space the First Peoples Gallery, The Geological Times Gallery, The Governors Gallery, The Inspiration, Opportunities and Innovator Gallery. It also proposes a 25-foot-wide passageway connecting the new galleries, featuring floor exhibits and a high-tech wall mural. Also in the plan are a 60-seat theater offering high quality programming, an elaborate atrium, cafe, outdoor patio and spaces for special events and conferences. The mock ups for the project are impressive. And proponents toss around the idea of the Heritage Center becoming a destination point in the region.

What phasing will do is uncertain.

The SHSND Foundation has been pushing hard for private donations. It will take a lot of pushing to raise $12 million, but by doing so, it ensures that the people of North Dakota are solidly behind the project.

The expansion of the archives was finished this fall, and that will help alleviate critical storage problems at the Heritage Center. But space for programming and exhibits runs short of demand and restricts the opportunities for the public to enjoy its heritage.

Experience has taught us that the investing in the Heritage Center is well worth the effort and the money. It is an expression of North Dakota. It shares with the rest of the world our experience as a people and a state. It chronicles in words, images and things our journey, and becomes a window upon our legacy.