It was in 1988 when Bob “Goose” Johnson went public with his “informal poll” on what Fargo citizens thought about the concept of a dome stadium. He told Forum reporter Paul G. White that it was 85 percent in favor of the concept.
We’re not sure if the poll data were the men sitting around his monthly poker club, but Goose got things rolling. The dreamers, movers and shakers proposed a half-cent sales tax to fund the dome, which at the time was pegged at $30 million.
The Fargo backers hooked their public relations train to the Tacoma Dome, a similar-sized venue south of Seattle. It’s been a good thing for Tacoma, they said.
There was opposition. North Dakota State history professor Larry Peterson urged the NDSU Student Senate to pass a resolution urging a no vote. It got tabled. There were operating concerns, with some pointing to the Tacoma Dome’s struggle for profitability. Local promoter R.D. Knutson questioned the number of projected concerts, saying “in my humble opinion there’s no way this town can support 20 concerts a year at $10 a ticket.”
Keep in mind Fargo voters in 1987 rejected a 1-cent sales tax to fund a $28 million Centennial Center downtown. That failed miserably with 74 percent against.
So there was nervousness by dome supporters when people hit the polls on Dec. 6, 1988.
The vote couldn’t have gone better. The project passed by a 61 percent margin with 11,577 in favor and 7,466 against. A simple majority was needed, a stipulation that has since been amended to a super majority of 60 percent.
Even in modern day rules, the dome would have won by super majority.
“We went into the 21st century tonight,” said Jim McLaughlin, the chairman of the Fargo Dome Steering Committee.
It took some doing to get to the 21st century. Not long after the groundbreaking, opposition did not go away. A second vote was sought after the accounting firm of Laventhol & Horwath predicted an operating deficit of $100,000 to $200,000 per year. That movement was sparked by 21-year-old NDSU student Steve Linke, who at such a young age had the guts to lead the Dome Reassessment Committee.
Mayor Jon Lindgren opposed a second vote, with Linke calling Lindgren “a two-faced weasel” in the newspaper.
The legal challenge was rebuffed and construction began. It remained to be seen if the dome would operate in the black.
“They estimated a two-hundred grand a year loss,” former Fargo finance director Mark Thelen said last week. “But they included no advertising money in that.”
It’s going to take over 30 years, the end of 2020, but Linke finally was right. The dome will probably finish this year at an operating loss.
Of course, it’s taken a world crisis for that to happen.
A Forum story on April 28 documented the dome’s loss this year could be as high as $500,000 because of a lack of activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lindgren, when contacted last week, chuckled at the story. A former NDSU economics professor, he’ll tell you there’s a difference between operating gains and losses and profitability, which in the early years was how it was presented. Assets depreciate, he’ll tell you.
“I went to a city commission meeting and I said when the numbers are presented in this way as a profit, then the public gets the idea you don’t have to vote for any more money and why are we paying these sales taxes?” Lindgren said. “The commissioners sat in stoned silence.”
Like most writers, I struggled mightily in accounting classes. And this is not a “I told you so” to dissenters of the dome concept back in the 1980s; all vibrant communities have people who care on both sides of any aisle.
But that report by the big shots at Laventhol & Horwath? There was probably a reason the firm based in Tampa, Fla., at the time the seventh largest in the U.S., went bankrupt a year later. It swung and missed at the Fargodome projections.
Building the dome has easily been the best thing Fargo has done.
“I think so,” Thelen said. “The quality of life and all those things. I’m biased because I was involved in it, but it’s given people entertainment opportunities they never would have had.”
There’s work to be done. The pandemic has put on hold any expansion or renovation plans. The dome has a $45 million reserve fund to help with this year’s event vacancy, but at some point the facility will have to be swanked up.
Whether that’s expanding the concourse, adding a convention center or renovating that awful Division II press box has yet to be decided.
“We’re still figuring out the next 30-year move for the building,” said dome general manager Rob Sobolik. “Everything that is going on now has jolted everything to what will come next.”
Whatever it is, let’s not think small. Maybe the next step is to go all-Goose and conduct an informal poll. Around a poker table.
Thankfully there’s no Laventhol & Horwath to screw up projections.