Hennen: Is new Legacy Fund investment for the next Disney World or Aldevron?

Hennen argues that Bison World should have no problem attracting private capital and bank financing.

Scott Hennen CROPPED.jpg
Scott Hennen

North Dakota might soon have a smaller version of Disney World. Bison World is a big dream envisioned by a group of local leaders in Jamestown.

Brian Lunde, a Jamestown native and longtime Democratic campaign manager in Washington, D.C., is back home in Jamestown. He is crafting a plan to get this $60-$70 million project off the drawing board. The amusement park would be just off I-94, a high traffic location near the world’s biggest buffalo. It’s a big, bold idea worthy of serious consideration for state tourism interests.

Lunde and Bison World backers are hoping for investment courtesy of new legislation recently passed by the North Dakota Legislature. House Bill 1425 was one of the most innovative laws passed this year thanks to the efforts of Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, Insurance Commissioner Jon Godfread and Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford. They were champions of this vision and legislative leaders in both chambers helped to craft the plan which was signed and supported by Gov. Doug Burgum as well.

HB 1425 sets aside 10% of the Legacy Fund principal, the bounty of North Dakota oil and gas development, to protect taxpayers from the zeal of politicians for spending whatever is in the kitty. The first 10% is for equity investments and another 10% is for fixed income opportunities.

North Dakota is short on capital for venture funding projects. That puts us behind larger states and short changes risk taking entrepreneurs. Imagine if this program had existed when Carrington, N.D., native Michael Chambers and his fellow NDSU student John Ballantyne were seeking capital for the company they founded, North Dakota’s first bio-tech company, Aldevron. Chambers and Ballantyne along with early investors just announced a proposed sale to Danaher, a company with 59,000 employees, for nearly $10 billion dollars. Yep, $10,000,000,000. Breathtaking. The entire Legacy Fund has $8.3 Billion.


Taxpayers now can invest in building and keeping businesses in North Dakota, providing career opportunities. The State Investment Board is in the process of formulating the process for how these projects will be vetted. The SIB has been in the news subject of criticism from a blogger and a Forum editorial. The allegation is that the state is being poorly served by its investment advisor, Callan. The newly-elected state treasurer, Thomas Beadle, has investigated concerns over “conflict of interest” allegations and says he’s satisfied with their answers. The firm has a three-decade long track record that includes a higher than average return since the market meltdown of 2008. And the state pension fund performs well among peer states, according to State Insurance Commissioner Jon Godfread.


  • North Dakota officials say they do ‘heavy due diligence’ in selecting investment firms North Dakota investment officials were asked about the state's decades-long, uninterrupted relationship with its top investment consultant, Callan. Selection of investment managers is exempt from state procurement requirements.
  • North Dakota paid its top investment management firm millions without competitive bidding process North Dakota pays millions of dollars every year to investment firms to manage its $19.4 billion portfolio, which includes public pension funds, insurance funds and the Legacy Fund. But state law does not require the contracts to go through a competitive bidding process.
  • Forum Editorial: North Dakota needs more than a rubber stamp overseeing its $19.4 billion investment portfolio The Legacy Fund is radically different than the pension and insurance funds that the State Investment Board traditionally has managed. The Legacy Fund is a crucial development tool for the state and should be run by a board that is more entrepreneurial.

The root of this controversy seems to be coming from some supporters of the Bison World project. This is a classic strategy of complaining about the referees (SIB, investment advisors), before the game has begun. Lunde tells me Eide Baily is preparing a financial analysis that projects as much as a 14% return for investment in Bison World. Given that pro forma, Bison World should have no problem attracting private capital and bank financing. The Legacy Fund should be reserved for the next Aldevron opportunity and big paying jobs, not roller coaster operators.
Scott Hennen hosts the statewide radio program “What’s On Your Mind?” On AM 1100 “The Flag”, KFYR AM 550, AM 1090 KTGO “The Flag” and AM 1460 KLTC. Email him at

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.

What To Read Next
Get Local