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Eastern N.D. thinks it's left out of tourism funds

Steve Stark wants the North Dakota tourism department to look east. The executive director of Bonanzaville in West Fargo hopes his words are heard in Bismarck. Visitors are down at all of Fargo-Moorhead's tourist sites, including the pioneer ...


Steve Stark wants the North Dakota tourism department to look east.

The executive director of Bonanzaville in West Fargo hopes his words are heard in Bismarck.

Visitors are down at all of Fargo-Moorhead's tourist sites, including the pioneer village, Stark says.

Part of that is fallout from the weak economy brought on by the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

What's hard to stomach is having eastern North Dakota's tourism industry ignored when advertising is most needed, Stark says.


"Have you taken a look at the state's tourism guide?" he asks.

"It's 159 pages, 144 photos. Six of those photos are from the Red River Valley. One of those is a country road.

"They have more pictures of sheep, bison and birds than of this part of the state."

Studies show most tourists visit family and friends in North Dakota, he said, and the Valley is the most populated region.

Plus, Bonanzaville, the Red River Zoo in Fargo and Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead draw 130,000 people. That doesn't include The Children's Museum at Yunker Farm or the Fargo Air Museum, he says.

"We're making this giant impact as a destination," Stark says.

"As a member of the Red River attractions group, I'm confused as to why the North Dakota Department of Tourism isn't giving us more attention. We deserve it."

Geoff Hall, the executive director of the Red River Zoo, says, "there definitely is a bias toward the Western experience that they use to market the state."


With the resignation of Al Stenehjem as state tourism director, Hall hopes the next director takes a more statewide view.

"North Dakota does not have a lock on the whole western motif," Hall says.

"We definitely compete with South Dakota and Wyoming and Colorado for the cowboys, the buttes and the howling coyotes."

How the west won

That balance may not be in the cards.

With a budget of $5.2 million for the biennium, state tourism dollars must go to "branding the state" for visitors from nearby states, such as South Dakota, Nebraska and Minnesota, says Joanne Olson, deputy director of the state tourism department.

Marketing studies say that brand needs to have a Western flavor, she says.

"One of the things research tells us is what is unique. What is unique to them (tourists) about North Dakota is the west," she says.


That means attractions like Bonanzaville, the Air Museum or Yunker Farm are left to their own devices.

"Once travelers enter the state, it's up to communities to market themselves," she says.

Second-best income

Tourism brought $2.83 billion dollars into North Dakota in 2000, second only to agriculture's $3.56 billion, according to figures supplied by Larry Leistritz, a professor of agricultural economics at North Dakota State University.

The overall state economy was $14.29 billion that year.

Tourism is also the state's fastest-growing industry.

Between 1990 and 2000, tourism revenues grew 59.7 percent.

That was followed by manufacturing, which grew 14.5 percent, federal payments, 14 percent, and exported services, 9.5 percent.


That growth -- and the potential for so much more -- has people like Cole Carley calling the Legislature to pump more money into the tourism department.

"It's just a shame that the Legislature and the governor's office just doesn't treat tourism seriously. It's never been funded adequately," says Carley, executive director of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Carley says every state dollar spent on tourism returns $10.

"Tourism will get a 10-to-1 payoff. Jeepers! That's something the credit card companies will kill for," he says.

Carley also disagrees with the tourism department's strategy of marketing the West, hoping tourists will stop in the east along the way.

"It works to an extent, but only to an extent," he says. "We do need, I think, a little more balanced attack for tourism."

Yvette Nasset, executive director of The Children's Museum at Yunker Farm, agrees.

"We simply don't have the money" to market on our own, she says.


"We're very dependent on public service announcements. I'd like the new tourism director to visit the rest of the state and see what we have to offer," Nasset says.

Joint marketing

Efforts are being made to overcome the dearth of state promotion for the Valley.

The four biggest Fargo-Moorhead area attractions -- Bonanzaville, the Fargo Air Museum, Red River Zoo and Hjemkomst Center -- are considering a joint family passport, with discounts perhaps tied to a local retailer who could also add a perk.

All of the nonprofit entities are looking "to try and get more bang for our buck," says Pam Miller, development coordinator for the Fargo Air Museum.

"We think it's really a unique idea. Rather than competing, let's work with each other," Miller says.

Hall hopes it will becomes a permanent collaboration.

"Basically, people in this area are shocked to realize the diversity of attractions in this area. And the high quality of attractions," he says.


Gov. John Hoeven, at a recent international trade conference in Fargo, said he understands the importance of tourism and the concerns of eastern tourism officials.

"We'll put more emphasis on helping tourism grow in the east," he promised.

If he delivers, that should bolster the confidence of local tourism officials for 2003. But they do want to see some results.

"I want the whole state to prosper," Stark says.

"But we have to be recognized."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583

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