A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting in a room with some lifelong community members.
Like men who like to talk do, we started fixing the world’s problems — starting with Dickinson’s.
Because this happened inside of a room at Trinity High School during the Region 7 boys basketball tournament, the conversation quickly turned to sports and the 2,300-person crowd packed into the Knights of Columbus Activities Center gymnasium just down the hall.
Each March, thousands of fans sardine themselves into arguably the best high school gymnasium in North Dakota to watch high school basketball tournaments.
Why? Because it’s all Dickinson, a regional hub city, has to offer.
So finally, I asked everyone a question: “Do you think this community would support a 5,000-seat event center?” The resounding answer was, “Yes.”
Despite Dickinson’s hotel growth, the city cannot host a state tournament for indoor sports. In the winter, there isn’t a place in Dickinson big enough to hold major events. From October to March, the West River Ice Center — formerly the Dickinson Recreation Center and a fine venue in its own right — is a hockey rink. That leaves the Biesiot Activities Center, two hotel ballrooms and a pair of clubs as the city’s only venues to hold large gatherings — and they all have their limitations.
Now, Dickinson never needed the proposed $110 million arena built on the outskirts of town, far away from Interstate 94 and the city’s population center. What we need is a modest and modern community arena — say around 5,000 seats — capable of hosting major trade shows, concerts, state and regional high school sporting events, indoor rodeos, and Dickinson State University athletics.
All told, the West River Community Center and Outdoor Pool, and the Ice Center cost approximately $37 million to build and/or expand — when costs were combined — and was funded primarily through a half-cent sales tax. So, once that’s all paid for, is the idea of building a $40-50 million event center capable of injecting profits back into the city really that bad of an idea?
Dickinson wants to continue growing despite the state’s oil slowdown. An arena would not only accomplish that, it would help give DSU the shot in the arm it needs — especially if the city and university work together so Blue Hawk teams can play there — and allow Dickinson to truly begin serving the state and region as a thriving hub city.
This month, the Ice Center hosts four events, including the Home Show next weekend and the Bakken Oil Product & Service Show on April 15 and 16. The first weekend of May, The Press is sponsoring its inaugural Big Boy Toy Show there. The following weekend, it’s home to a Hairball concert.
While the addition of a second hockey rink to the arena was necessary to ensure the future of Dickinson’s youth programs and the updating of the building’s facade was desperately needed, the Ice Center is still best suited for modest-size events like the Home Show and the Big Boy Toy Show. Major conferences, particularly those related to oil, will likely never be held there.
Building an city event center wouldn’t be impossible, either. Cities like Dickinson throughout the region have already invested in similar structures with success.
Bemidji, Minn., (pop. 14,500) built the 4,700-seat Sanford Center a few years ago for $35 million. Mankato, Minn., (pop. 40,000) finished the 7,500-seat Verizon Wireless Center in 1995. Both arenas are home to Division I hockey programs and are visual centerpieces for their respective cities.
Rapid City, S.D., constructed the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center in the 1970s when the town wasn’t all that much bigger than Dickinson is today. Butte, Mont., has supported a 7,000-seat civic center since the early ’60s.
In Dickinson, we seemingly have “new” everything — supermarkets, hotels, hospitals, restaurants, stores, homes, apartments and people. We are growing. We will likely never be a 15,000 person town again.
Because of that, a large community event center not only should be, it needs to be our next city growth project.
City leaders should seriously begin researching how, where and if Dickinson can make this happen. If we want our city to continue growing and be the Bakken hub city our leaders believe we can be, an arena would be a significant step toward that.