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Editorial: Fargo performance center should receive rigorous financial vetting

Fargo civic leaders and arts patrons have long dreamed of having a premier performing arts center to enrich the city's cultural life. Each of the three college or university campuses has its own performance venue, but each is old and has its limitations. The Fargo Civic Center, also past its prime, is seen as simply inadequate, for reasons that include its poor acoustics, and the Fargodome is too large and not really designed for the performing arts. The possibility, which had languished as city leaders were preoccupied with issues including the new City Hall, now has been rekindled. A divided Fargo City Commission voted 3 to 2 to form a committee to revise cost estimates and evaluations of a performance center's financial feasibility.

Three years ago, a consultant estimated a new performance center would cost $51.4 million. The analysis found the option of renovating the Civic Center wasn't appealing, since it would require accepting design compromises that would produce lackluster results despite the cost. Given the steep price tag, members of the Fargo City Commission would rely heavily on private donors, who would be expected to contribute about half of the project's cost, or at least $25 million. A leading arts advocate said raising that sum from donors would be "challenging." That's undoubtedly an understatement.

We're by no means opposed to a new performance center. But we're not convinced that such a large contribution by private donors is realistic. Commissioner Dave Piepkorn, an advocate of the performance center, has vowed that it would be built without raising taxes. The committee examining the proposal has its work cut out for it. It has to identify both public and private funding sources.

The committee also should be very thorough in exploring how to finance a performance center's operations. Besides helping to build it, would donors be expected to help pay to keep the center running? We know that entertainment venues and programs here have struggled financially: Trollwood Performing Arts School required significant financial support from Fargo Public Schools, which paid off debt and even the venerable Fargo Theatre has required ongoing subsidies from benefactors.

The stable of charitable givers is not a bottomless pit. With that in mind—and the tortuous financial history of entertainment venues—city leaders must be very careful in studying the financial feasibility of a performance center. They should move ahead only if they come up with clear and convincing evidence that a performance center could stand on its own feet financially without relying on the generosity of benefactors.

Editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.