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Bismarck Event Center (Civic Center)

By | Last Modified: December 31, 2019
Bismarck Civic Center

The Bismarck Event Center (formerly Bismarck Civic Center) is a 10,100-capacity civic arena and exhibit center that hosts such events as seminars, performances, and sporting events. Since 2017, it has been the home of the Bismarck Bucks indoor football team. From 1995-2012, it was home to Dakota Wizards basketball.

The Civic Center opened in 1969 and was renamed Bismarck Event Center in 2014. Major expansions were completed in 1990, 1999, and 2015.

Early History

Discussions of an arena and event center for Bismarck first emerged in the 1950s. The original proposal called for expanding the World War Memorial Building, but funding could not be secured. The first serious attempt at an events center came in 1958, but funding went to constructing the Veteran’s Public Library instead.

In fall 1963, the City Commission appointed a citizens civic center committee to deliberate plans for a center, but it won’t be for another four years before the civic arena is approved.

Site Selection

Roughly 20 prospective sites were considered, the most likely of which included: North of Interstate 94 on city-owned land, East of 26th Street on state-owned land, East of Bismarck Junior College, and 5th Street at Front Avenue.

The committee narrowed the potential sites to 12 before recommending, in January 1964, the 5th Street location. The site was chosen primarily for its access and proximity to the central business district, particularly the existing City Auditorium. A city consultant also favored the site.

Despite its strong support, a heated debate ensued for the next few years over the center’s location, with numerous letters to the editor favoring alternatives. Harold Schafer strongly lobbied for the arena to be built on land he donated east of  Bismarck Junior College, citing its scenic advantage.

Approval and Construction

Three public votes between 1964-1967 determined the Civic Center’s fate. Voters authorized a bond measure of $1.8 million for an arena in April 1964, in a 4,327-3,713 vote, but defeated a $900,000 cost and debt limit increase on December 6, 1966. While majority favored the increase, it did not achieve the required 60% margin.

The City Commission approved the Civic Center on March 21, 1967. To cut costs, the approved $1.7 million plan eliminated a permanent stage with unfinished seating on its east side for later expansion.

Public approval was still needed and, on June 26th, voters narrowly authorized $1.5 million towards constructing the Civic Center at the 5th Street site: 4,255 votes in favor against 7,821 total. 3,560 voted in favor of the Bismarck Junior College site, which would have delayed construction. Voters from the nearby Highland Acres development opposed the college location more than any other section of the city.

The city acquired five blocks of land from the Wachter Family for the project, in what proved to be a fruitful endeavor for the Wachter’s upcoming Kirkwood Plaza that would open adjacent to the center in 1971. Two blocks were purchased for $112,150, while the Wachters gifted the remaining three blocks to be primarily used for parking. The land gift included restrict covenants, however, that the city bought out in 2005 for $600,000 to gain full control of the land.

Construction commenced on June 28, 1967. A few weeks later, excavation uncovered artifacts dating back to 1807 – long before Bismarck’s founding, including historic European china and bottles. Other waste was more recent, estimated to be the early 1910s from what was assumed to be a waste dump. Among the artifacts were Eurpoean china, old bottles, and even print articles.

By mid-1968, the exterior walls were completed, along with paving for the parking lot. Contracts were also awarded to pave nearby streets: Sweet and Bowen Avenues, and 5th and 7th Streets. Bismarck Avenue (now Expressway) was also paved between 9th and Washington.

The Civic Center was completed in 1969 for $2.5 million. About one-fourth of the cost was financed through donations. The 24th Annual Holiday on Ice was the first event held, September 5th-9th. It was formally dedicated on September 14th.

By the time of opening, nearly every weekend for the next year was reserved.

Exhibit Hall

The Civic Center completed a 112,000-square-foot addition in 1990 that included six meeting rooms and a 48,600-square-foot exhibit hall just north of the arena. The addition and main arena were connected with a tunnel to allow easy access between the two facilities.

The $11.2-million project was financed using a sales and leaseback method, along with funding from a voter-approved 1% city sales tax in 1986. This financing vessel guaranteed the 20-mill property tax break promised when the 1% sales tax went into effect. The City sold the Civic Center, a watermain, and the library to Norwest Bank for $17 million. The bank acted as a trustee while the city re-purchased the assets with an interest rate of 8.33%, at installments of $2.1 million per year for 15 years.

Construction commenced in 1987. It was quite controversial. At least two lawsuits were filed. One challenged the project’s financing. The district court ruled in favor of the city, which was later upheld by the state Supreme Court.

In 1990, the state Supreme Court ruled that Bismarck had violated a North Dakota’s competitive-bidding law. Despite this, construction was allowed to continue because it was “impractical” to cease.

On the other hand, supporters argued that Bismarck was losing opportunities with the Civic Center’s present state. One example cited was a scheduling conflict in 1986 where rock band KISS could not perform at the Center.

Controversy aside, the new exhibit hall already had booked 120 days worth of events by the time it held its grand opening in November 1990.

Southern Addition

A $9.8 million (one source says $8.6 million) addition to the arena’s south was dedicated in December 1999. Commenced in March 1998, this addition added 1,000 seats to the arena, a new main entrance on its southwest, new ticket box office, upper-level food court, and 1,200-capacity reception area. Other improvements included new sound, lighting, and curtain systems.

2014 Exhibit Hall Expansion & Name Change

A $27-million, 50,000-square-foot expansion of the exhibit section concluded in early 2015, more than doubling the previous exhibition space. At only 60% completion, it hosted the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in 2014.

Once again, the expansion was met with controversy. Financing was again challenged, particularly after voters rejected a measure backing the expansion in 2012. The measure would have increased the motel, liquor and restaurant tax by 1.5% and the lodging tax by 1% to finance a proposed $90-million project. Opponents also argued in favor of a full replacement facility in the rapidly growing northern part of the city as opposed to expanding the existing center.

Despite public opposition, the City Commission unanimously approved the project in 2013. It would be financed through bonds to be repaid using existing taxes.

On September 26, 2014, it was officially announced that the Bismarck Civic Center would be renamed Bismarck Event Center in response to the Center’s increased diversification.

A design flaw was credited for massive flooding from a severe storm in June 2015, which caused an estimated $200,000 in damage to the newly completed facility.

Bismarck Bucks

The Bismarck Bucks, a new professional indoor football team, established its home at the Event Center in 2017. 

Other Expansion Efforts

In 2006, an effort was initiated to expand the Civic Center at an estimated cost of $26 million. Part of the expansion included the addition of a parking garage and a 16-story Candad Inn hotel. A 1% sales tax increase was proposed by Mayor Warford to help fund the expansion; however, the plan was scrapped due to slowing economic conditions at the time and overall public opposition.

Another expansion plan was announced in May 2012 by a group of hotel owners who hoped to see a 30,000-40,000 square foot expansion.

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