This week lawmakers will take up an issue related to a feud between the North Dakota State Fair, which is headquartered in Minot, and the Ward County Historical Society which for decades now has maintained a display on the state fairgrounds.
The historical society has a legal document originating in the 1960’s which they say grants them permission to maintain their museum which consists of a number of historically significant buildings from the region. The state fair association wants to evict the historical society to make room for the expansion of facilities (I’m told there are plans for a convention center of some sort).
The matter is now before the courts, but some Minot-area lawmakers want the state to intervene on the side of the historical society. That brings us to SB2298 – backed by Senator Oley Larsen and Rep. Dan Ruby, both Republicans from Minot – which has a hearing before the Senate Government and Veterans Affairs Committee this week.
The text of the bill is simple. It requires that the state fair allow the historical society’s display to exist. It also requires access for vehicles and whatever utilities are needed to operate and maintain the buildings there. These things are required until such a time as the Ward County Historical Society ceases to operate.
The motor vehicle access and utility connections requirements are significant. Since the dispute began the fair association has been blocking access for the historical society. One of the buildings on the property is an early church. Currently there is a congregation meeting there to worship and honor the history of the church (full disclosure: I have friends who are members of the congregation). The fair association did not allow them to bring in a gas line to heat the church for the winter, forcing them to use very expensive baseboard electrical heating.
But as to the issue before the Legislature, it’s important to remember that the state fairgrounds are state property. Also, the taxpayers are significantly involved with funding the fair. A multi-million dollar grandstand on the fairgrounds was built courtesy of state taxpayers, and although the fair association claims to operate in the black, they’re only able to do so because the state foots the bill for maintaining and improving the structures there.
I’m sure many of you readers don’t attend the fair in Minot. Though it’s billed as the “state fair,” it’s more of a regional event. But it is a state-sanctioned event occurring on state property, and so the whole state has an interest in this.
The efforts to push out the historical society are borderline shameful. The historical society’s display is well-maintained and thoroughly enjoyable. Amid the carnival rides and the crooked games, the junk food and the “snake oil” products being peddled in the commercial buildings, it is an interesting link to often overlooked local history.
It does not reflect well on the priorities of the fair association that they would make such brutal, unilateral moves against the historical society. The relationship could be symbiotic. The historical society would probably wither and die without access to the crowds drawn in by the state fair and other events on the fairgrounds. The fair could also champion their dedication to something more edifying than corn dogs and creaking amusement park rides.
Rather than trying to find some accommodation whereby the fair and the historical society can coexist, emphasizing both entertainment and education, the fair association has chosen to try and steamroll the historical society out of existence.
The Legislature ought to stand behind the historical society. And once they do, the public ought to rethink who they have in charge of the state fair.