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As FMCT prepares to open in the Hjemkomst, some are holding their applause

Some with ties to the Hjemkomst in Moorhead have expressed concerns about the city's use of the building.

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Tony Peterson plays Fredrick Frankenstein and Audrey Haugen plays Inga during a Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre rehearsal of "Young Frankenstein" at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead. David Samson / The Forum
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MOORHEAD — After two weeks of postponing productions due to a case of COVID-19 in the cast , the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre is ready to kick off its new season in its new home at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead.

The musical comedy “Young Frankenstein” opens Wednesday night , Oct. 20, and runs through Sunday, Oct. 24.

Initially planned as a three-weekend stretch, the truncated run still has those involved pumped up about the Hjemkomst debut.

“It is super exciting,” says Judy Lewis, FMCT's executive director. “I can’t say enough about how supportive (Moorhead) Mayor Carlson and (Moorhead City Manager) Dan Mahli have been. Their excitement is contagious.”

That enthusiasm hasn’t entirely spread across the community. Since it was announced last spring that Mayor Shelly Carlson had invited FMCT to move into the Hjemkomst's Heritage Hall, some with ties to the Moorhead landmark have expressed concerns.

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The Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead is the new home for Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre. Forum file photo
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‘Big government takeover’

In a letter to the editor published in The Forum on July 10, 2021 , Gaylord (Guy) Paulson said that the FMCT taking over Heritage Hall was taking away the biggest and best exhibition space from the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, which programs exhibits and events in the building. He said less room for the HCSCC would diminish the visiting experiences for guests.

In a phone call to The Forum, Paulson also questioned the transparency of Mayor Shelly Carlson’s invitation to FMCT to move into the Hjemkomst and said there should have been public discussion before the Moorhead City Commission voted in May to authorize the move.

Paulson has strong ties to the Hjemkomst Center as he built the Moorhead Stave Church , a replica of a traditional wood Norwegian church, on the property between 1996 and 2001.

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The Hopperstad Stave Church replica at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead. David Samson / The Forum
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Similarly, Bob Stenerson was instrumental in fundraising for the Hjemkomst Center. He has been in touch with Paulson and expressed concerns that the FMCT would put on children’s theater or Halloween productions in the stave church.

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He sees Moorhead moving its City Council meetings to the Hjemkomst as “big government takeover,” and fears more space will be absorbed by city offices — all of which go against the original intent of the Hjemkomst as an interpretive center for the Hjemkomst Viking Ship and its history , he says.

“We didn’t raise funds for city offices or City Hall or city control,” he says. “That’s not the intent it was when we built it… This is one of our icons. The council chambers moved over here and we couldn’t have the Scandinavian Festival. It just tears me up when we got these things and they become a city function.”

In April it was announced that for the second year in a row ,the annual Scandinavian Hjemkomst & Midwest Viking Festival would be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic., not because the city had moved any chambers or offices there.

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The Hjemkomst Viking Ship display at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead. David Samson / The Forum
David Samson / The Forum

‘Change is scary’

Mayor Carlson has heard these complaints and others.

“There have been a lot of changes at the Hjemkomst, change and evolution. Change is scary,” she says.

However, she says there’s nothing to be scared about.

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When asked about moving city offices to the Hjemkomst, she points out that the Department of Parks and Recreation has been in the Hjemkomst for years, as has Moorhead’s senior services programs, so the building hasn't always been solely an interpretive center. In fact, when the HCSCC merged with the Hjemkomst over a decade ago, it dropped "interpretive center" from its name.

Carlson says Moorhead is temporarily hosting City Council meetings in the Hjemkomst only to allow space for social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s not going to be a permanent location. I want to get out of there as soon as possible because that means COVID is over,” she says.

Carlson says the council’s vote was listed on the agenda for the May 10 meeting and that the public is always welcome to discuss an issue.

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Moorhead Mayor Shelly Carlson. Forum file photo
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She also had heard untrue rumors that she extended the offer to FMCT because she is related to Judy Lewis. Rather, Carlson’s sister-in-law, Jamie Aasen, is the president of the FMCT board of directors, and she told the mayor that Lewis was looking at spaces in Moorhead to produce theatrical works.

The FMCT has been without its mainstage and home in Fargo's Island Park since December 2019, when it was discovered the roof had structural issues. The building has been unusable since.

This summer, FMCT staged “All Shook Up” at TAK Music Venue in Dilworth.

Carlson says she saw the possibility for FMCT to use space in the Hjemkomst as a good opportunity for both organizations, getting more visitors to the Hjemkomst and further bolstering Moorhead's claim as a theater town as FMCT joins Theatre B and Trollwood on the Minnesota side.

Stave church in spotlight

As for concerns that the FMCT will use the stave church in shows, Mahli sent Paulson a letter in late September trying to allay any fears of misusing the structure. He assured Paulson that the city was drafting a policy that would “restrict the use of the Stave Church to activities that are consistent with the history and interpretation of the church,” as well as “prohibit modification or alterations to the Stave Church that go beyond general upkeep and maintenance.”

Mahli added that after speaking with Lewis, “she has indicated the FMCT does not intend to use the Stave Church.”

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Judy Lewis stands Thursday, May 13, 2021, in the Heritage Hall space at Moorhead's Hjemkomst Center that will house the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre. Forum file photo
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“As the executive director, I would never disrespect the feelings of the community and the people who built it,” Lewis says regarding use of the stave church. “I’m willing to wait and not do anything there until people feel good about it. There’s potential for magic there.”

There's also the potential that the arrangement may not last longer than the original lease, which runs through March 2024 with FMCT paying $68,207 a year in rent.

Lewis says that after many back-and-forth discussions with FMCT's insurance company, a settlement could come by the end of October that would be favorable for the theater's needs. If that happens, she says construction company McGough could be ready to start work. She has vowed in the past that the troupe would return to Fargo.

“We have welcomed our new neighbors with open arms. I think we will be able to make it work,” says Maureen Kelly Jonason, executive director of the HCSCC.

She says the loss of Heritage Hall for HCSCC programming has been felt. Its latest major exhibit, “Ihdago Manipi: Clay County at 150,” had to be scaled back 1,000 square feet to now 2,600 square feet. She says the material that didn’t make it into the current show could still end up in future exhibits.

“Now that the dust has settled, it will create a symbiotic relationship between the nonprofits calling it home,” Carlson says.

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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