Where Should We Build A Civic Center? Ask Harold and Evan and Dave

There’s a big building on the edge of downtown Bismarck that’s home to many civic functions, concerts, basketball tournaments and recreational uses by the community. But it’s not big enough, in the minds of Bismarck city leaders, for the kinds of events the city is capable of hosting. Seating is too limited. It should be expanded to make room for more uses, but parking is a problem at the current location if the expansion takes place.

Everyone agrees that we need to do have a better facility. But should we expand the current facility, or build a new one? Well, the people should vote on it, city leaders decide. An election is held. Nothing comes of the proposal, and the city commission keeps on discussing.

Finally, a wealthy businessman steps forward and offers a plan for a much larger new building, finds the land for it, and offers to provide some start-up money. More discussion takes place.  Another wealthy family steps up and offers some land, enough for a new facility that will be one of the biggest in the state, with enough seating for the biggest basketball tournaments, conventions and concerts.

Sound like a summary of what you’ve been reading in the Bismarck Tribune lately? Sorry. Go back in time 55 years.

This story started in 1958, when wealthy Bismarck businessman Harold Schafer wrote a letter to the Bismarck City Commission saying the city’s expansion plan for the World War Memorial Building to be converted into a youth and civic center was inadequate for a city like Bismarck. Here’s the first paragraph of a Bismarck Tribune story dated September 23, 1958:

“A massive downtown civic and youth center, a year-round swimming pool, an ice skating rink and an auditorium seating 10,000 persons, has been proposed for Bismarck by Harold Schafer, prominent local businessman. The idea was broached in a letter to the Bismarck City Commission and the Burleigh County Board of Commissioners.”

The story goes on to say that Schafer would be willing to donate $50,000 or 5 per cent of the cost, whichever would be greater, to the project.

“Schafer said he didn’t believe that the sort of structure he had in mind—one that could handle future population expansion—could be attained by merely enlarging the present World War Memorial Building,” the Tribune reported.  “A plan to expand the Memorial Building for a youth and civic center has already been approved by the city commission and the county commissioners.”

The story went on to quote Schafer: “I don’t think this can be done by expanding the Memorial Building. But I personally don’t care if they do build it there—or where they build it. Just as long as it is large enough for all the kids and in a place where they can all reach it.”

His proposal included a swimming pool and skating rink and “some sort of a teen canteen, exclusively for the use of young people; an auditorium with a seating capacity of not less than 10,000 for conventions, basketball tournaments, etc., and large parking facilities, either in a sub-basement or on the roof, or both.”

How’s that for a big idea in 1958 for Bismarck?

His proposed location was on the block between Rosser Avenue and Avenue A, and Third and Fourth Streets (where the big MDU building is now—it wasn’t there then), because half the block was owned by the Elks Club, and they would be asked to donate it.

“In commenting on the proposal, Mayor Evan Lips said Tuesday he thought the proposal was ‘similar to what we had in mind,’” The Tribune reported. “Of course, we know what it costs to maintain the Memorial Building. We don’t know what it will cost for any new structure. And this money has to come from taxes.” Lips added that the city already owns the property adjacent to the Memorial Building.

Well.

If you’ve been reading the Bismarck Tribune lately, you see lots of similarities between then and now. The ultimate decision and solution, then as now, was a long time coming. According to the book History of the City of Bismarck North Dakota, by George F. Bird and Edwin J. Taylor, published by the Bismarck Centennial Association in 1972, in the end, the city ended up buying two city blocks of property from the Wachter brothers south of the railroad tracks in 1965. The Wachters then donated three additional blocks for parking. But that was not the end of the contentious Civic Center story. It did indeed take three city elections to finally determine where the Civic Center would go, and finally, on June 26, 1967, “the voters settled the matter and determined that it would be constructed on the site near Fifth and Front (the Wachter land),” according to Bird and Taylor.

Incidentally, the book reports, “David M. Heskett, President of the Montana Dakota Utilities Co., announced on August 17, 1967 (just two months after the city election) that a new office building would be built in Bismarck to house the company’s general offices.” That building, still a downtown anchor today, was built on the spot Schafer had first proposed for the new Civic Center—but not until an alternative site had been selected for the Civic Center.

The Civic Center was completed in 1969, and the first Class A basketball tournament to be held there opened on March 9, 1970. Harold’s donation to the city eventually went to complete the new swimming pool.

There was no one more pleased than Harold Schafer when, after years of debate and discussion, the Civic Center opened its doors in 1969, eleven years after his first proposal to the city commission. Today, of course, it does have seating for 10,000, as Harold envisioned back in 1958, but it has been eclipsed by other facilities around the state, and city fathers are debating whether to expand the current facility or build a new, bigger one, on land to be donated by another wealthy businessman. This one is no Harold Schafer, though. This one owns a section of land way out on the north edge of town, and by donating a piece of that section for a new Civic Center, he stands to make a fortune by increasing the value of the rest of that section for commercial purposes.

There’s been one election. The city commission is taking some tentative steps toward expansion of the existing facility. I won’t be surprised if there’s another election. Or two.

And I bet Harold Schafer and Evan Lips and Dave Heskett, some of the greatest leaders this city ever had, still get together for some Heavenly coffee from time to time, and the three of them are keeping a close eye on the proceedings.

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