Is the proposed Buffalo City theme park the answer to North Dakota's tourism challenge?
Tourism is North Dakota's No. 3 industry — but the state lacks big attractions that can draw large numbers of visitors and engage them for long periods that translate into a bigger revenue payoff. A proposal centered on the mystique of the buffalo aims to become a tourism gateway.
JAMESTOWN, N.D. — City leaders inherited a major headache when they took possession of the struggling Frontier Village on the edge of town in the fall of 2019. The rundown tourist attraction was losing money and only drawing a trickle of visitors.
Pam Phillips, then a member of the Jamestown City Council, approached Brian Lunde, a retired public relations executive from Washington, D.C., who’d returned to live in his hometown, and asked him to take a look and offer suggestions.
Lunde agreed, but only on the condition that the city would engage “Disney-level thinking” and not simply slap the “10th coat of paint” on the ramshackle buildings and consider that an achievement.
Out of that conversation over a lunch table grew Jamestown’s ambitious $60 million proposed Buffalo City theme park, which city backers want to build on vacant state land along Interstate 94 — a site next to the world’s largest buffalo statue and the National Bison Museum, outside of which buffalo graze on pasture land.
The theme park, which envisions interpretive centers, an amphitheater, tramway, hotel and a buffalo-themed restaurant similar to Ted’s Montana Grill among other attractions, seeks to transform 30 acres of unused land belonging to the State Hospital into a tourism gateway for North Dakota.
And it does incorporate “Disney-level thinking” in the person of Bob McTyre, who as a division director at Disney produced and marketed Broadway productions including Disney’s "Beauty and the Beast."
McTyre is a founding partner of Apogee Attractions, and a guiding visionary behind the Buffalo City theme park.
Through some business connections, Lunde learned of McTyre and got him to travel to Jamestown in January of 2020 to take a look at Frontier Village with a professional eye. McTyre, who had already studied aerial photographs of the site, asked about the vacant 120 acres of land next door.
Of particular interest: The land is near an exit on I-94 — and easily visible from this highway, traveled by 8.8 million vehicles every year, presenting a rare opportunity.
“You’re sitting on the last, best undeveloped tourism land in the country,” Lunde said, recalling McTyre’s comment about the site’s potential.
Tourism ranks as North Dakota’s third-largest industry, behind agriculture and energy, but the state has few marquee attractions to draw visitors — and even fewer that will keep them in the state, spending money.
Most of the traffic moving along I-94 is westbound, and theme park backers say Jamestown is in a strategic location to capture those visitors and introduce them to other attractions in the state, including the future Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Medora.
The average visitor who stops in North Dakota on a 9.5-day vacation spends just 2.7 days in the Peace Garden State, according to a state study.
“I think really moving the dial on that number is how this project contributes to the state as a whole,” said Searle Swedlund, executive director of Jamestown Tourism.
'Our niche is bison'
After celebrating its 75th anniversary in 1957, Jamestown boosters had money left over. That was also about the time that I-94 was built in the area, part of a new highway system linking the nation and ushering in a new era of automobile travel.
So townspeople decided they wanted to use the pot of money to create something that would lure visitors. The result in 1959 was what’s touted as the world’s largest buffalo statue, standing 26 feet tall, 46 feet long and weighing 60 tons.
Not long after, a group banded together to build Frontier Village, a pioneer village near the buffalo statue, adding another Western-themed tourist attraction.
“In that generation there was a big move to capture the Old West,” Swedlund said.
But in the decades since, both the statue and the village have grown tired and lost their lustre.
Attractions including pioneer villages that once were popular no longer appeal to younger generations with no connection to that frontier past, Swedlund said.
“The next generation doesn’t have that nostalgia and memory for that,” he said. “It just translates as old and not memorable.”
Also, younger generations prefer more interactive, hands-on experiences — an approach at the center of the Buffalo City theme park, with conceptual plans including interactive displays, multimedia shows, entertainment, zipline and gondola rides.
Today, 70,000 visitors per year come to the Frontier Village and neighboring buffalo statue, according to Jamestown Tourism. Of those, 9,000 visit the nearby National Buffalo Museum, where 25 buffalo graze in two pastures totaling 200 acres.
Destination attractions today focus on a niche. Think Disneyland, Disney World, Universal’s Land of Adventure, the Wisconsin Dells.
“Our niche is bison,” Swedlund said. “It’s all about buffalo. To me the animal has a really special meaning. It’s very iconic.”
To tell the story of the iconic animal of the American West — designated as the national mammal — the theme park would improve and build upon the existing attractions, including the National Buffalo Museum and buffalo statue. Plans call for a bison discovery center with at least three times the collections space and exhibits that the museum now features, a buffalo safari Jeep tour of the herd, film and multimedia presentations.
The theme park would like to tell the story about the central importance of buffalo for American Indian tribes, and backers want to consult with representatives of the state’s tribes to tell the story in a way that is accurate and appropriate, McTyre said.
The National Buffalo Museum supports the proposal. “We’re especially excited about the ability to broaden our footprint and reach,” said Ilana Xinos, the museum’s executive director. “We’re just here to tell the story of the bison and would love to do that on a larger scale.”
Another pavilion, Dakota Lands, would tell North Dakota’s story, including the contributions of agriculture and energy.
But there would be plenty of other activities to try to lure vacationing families off the freeway, including a children’s corral play area, an enchanted cave featuring a treasure hunt, zipline and tramway rides, concerts and other live performances, perhaps impersonators of figures such as Buffalo Bill Cody, Meriwether Lewis and Sitting Bull, and possibly a light show featuring drones.
“It’s important that this be not just a museum,” McTyre said. “People want to have fun, they want entertainment.”
Another idea would enable drone flights over the herd, if the drone could be controlled in such a way as to not bother the buffalo, with photographs for visitors.
A Tatanka Lodge with underground parking for guests could have from 150 to 250 keys. “We don’t want it to overwhelm the park as a whole,” McTyre said, “but it’s certainly complementary.”
Three stores would provide shopping and snack islands would augment the restaurant and grill.
“We’re at the concept level,” McTyre said. “There will be a lot of adjustments as we go.”
'A lot of little things'
More than 60 years ago, when Jamestown rallied to build the world’s largest buffalo sculpture, promoters raised $8,000 for the undertaking, a sum critics found “grandiose,” Swedlund said.
“To spend that kind of money in that day was viewed as really controversial,” he said. “For North Dakota, that was new territory.”
Now the Jamestown group is working hard to build a case to persuade the State Investment Board that investing $60 million in Legacy Fund earnings will generate a healthy return.
A study by McTyre’s Apogee Attractions projects the theme park would draw from a regional market of more than 1.6 million people, including North Dakota residents and visitors, with annual paid attendance ranging from 227,000 to 256,000 people.
That business activity would generate a projected $70 million to $76 million in taxable revenue over a five-year period and net earnings to the state of at least $14 million, according to the study.
The park would create 361 direct jobs and 517 indirect jobs. The theme park’s payroll would be more than $3 million in its first year of operations. Backers hope to open the park in 2024 if all goes well.
Sara Otte Coleman, North Dakota’s tourism director, said the theme park would give the state’s hospitality industry something it desperately needs: a major attraction. The Buffalo City project would join the state Heritage Center in Bismarck and the future Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Medora as major attractions capable of drawing visitors, she said.
“We don’t have that one huge thing that everybody knows about,” she said. “We have a lot of little things,” which is not to minimize their appeal, she added.
Otte Colemen praised the Jamestown group for bringing a major proposal to the table that could give the state’s tourism sector a big boost. “They’re big thinkers,” she said.
North Dakota is always talking about the recognized need to diversify its economy beyond “oil and soil,” and the Buffalo City theme park would do that, Otte Coleman said.
“Really tourism is a great way to diversify the economy,” which contributes almost $3 billion to the economy, according to a study by her office. “That supports 3,000 small businesses.”
North Dakota legislators decided against providing $5 million to help start the project. But the city of Jamestown and Stutsman County will spend $600,000 to further study the idea, including an independent financial analysis by Eide Bailly as well as engineering studies and architectural designs.
Armed with that information to bolster the Apogee Attractions study, theme park backers will make their pitch to the investment board sometime later this year.
In the view of Lunde, who is working as a volunteer on the proposal, state officials and the investment board should view the theme park project as an opportunity to demonstrate what’s being done with public money.
“You could really create a legacy here,” he said.