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Thompson steering the ship on fairgrounds project: Committee utilizes $217K for engineering, meetings

Editor's Note: Corrections were made to this story on April 4, 2014.

A year after the Dickinson State University Foundation was given $300,000 of public money to get a Stark County fairgrounds plan rolling, the group’s CEO is steering the ship.

Roughly $217,000 has been spent on engineering, legal fees and meetings, said Arnie Binek, chairman of the Stark County Park Board.

Members of a committee that includes representatives from multiple government entities say everyone was involved in making decisions, but that Foundation CEO Kevin Thompson had the experience in project planning for the Biesiot Activities Center and had the time to research for this project.

But the county will use what remains in the fund and other money to buy land secured recently for two-and-a-half miles south of town for the planned fairgrounds and multi-use events center.

Since the group isn’t a public entity, and no majority of any of the boards represented was present, the meetings didn’t require public notice or the other transparency measures usually required by government meetings, Stark County State’s Attorney Tom Henning said.

Representatives of the city of Dickinson, Stark County, the Stark County Park Board, the Stark County Fair Association, the Dickinson Roughrider Commission, DSU and the Foundation have been involved in the meetings.

The city has stepped back in recent weeks, looking to create its own facility in town.

The remaining groups are planning to organize as a limited liability corporation in the next week.

Spending public funds About $2,100 of the money — which was legislatively earmarked for this project — went to flights for three members of the group, including Thompson, to Loveland, Colo., to see a similar facility built there by Mortenson Construction, Binek said.

Mortenson, the construction company that built the Biesiot Activities Center, got approximately $137,000 for master plans, some from starting over because plans would change as land deals fell through. A few hundred dollars went to meeting refreshments and lunches, Binek said.

Concerns were brought up by some in the group about hiring Populous, an international architecture firm, to draw renderings of the facility for about $22,000. The North Dakota State Fair is currently resolving allegations against the firm over deficiencies in its design for the grandstand erected in 2010.

“We did, in fact, have concerns with the design and some of the construction techniques utilized, primarily with the design,” State Fair attorney Jason Vendsel said.

Populous was chosen because Thompson was familiar with the firm, members of the group said.

“Basically it was a group that was used basically that Kevin was familiar with and, you know, they were available and so we picked them,” Binek said.

But Frank Klein, vice chairman of the park board, said he had the impression Thompson was pretty set on Populous.

“I think he just sort of assumed that he was the lead guy,” Klein said.

Klein asserted that when choosing firms for a feasibility study and planning, Thompson tried to steer the project in his favor.

“He was hiring somebody that he was gonna get the results that he wanted,” Klein said. “The study was gonna come back and everything was gonna be in his favor. … He was hiring them and he was paying them.”

Committee had final approval, Thompson did major legwork Members of the so-called supergroup say everyone was involved in decision-making. But with the time Thompson devoted to the project that others couldn’t, he had a higher level of involvement than anyone else. He’d bring proposals to the group, which would approve them.

“I know that for us to go through that process was something we were unfamiliar with,” Elkin said.

“The foundation has been down that road in different projects.”

That trust led to the group likely giving Thompson “a little bit of free reign on this,” Elkin said.

Binek, too, said while the group had final approval, Thompson was the only one out doing the research and bringing proposals forward.

“The thing about it is I don’t know if there was anybody else in the group that had a chance” to do the footwork Thompson did, Binek said.

Thompson wasn’t available to comment on this story, but he said in an interview last week the $300,000 was a gift from the Park Board to get the entities together “on a united front.”

There are efforts at accountability: Thompson submits reports to the group on where the money is being spent and the group meets every few weeks.

But those meetings aren’t well-advertised for the public to attend.

“Should Kevin and we probably do a better job of that?” Elkin said of public notice. “Yes, we probably should.”

Binek, too, said the process was “probably not” as public as it should’ve been.

Asked why Thompson got involved, Klein said, “Good question. I guess ‘cause he’s the guy that showed up and asked, said he would do the job.”

The foundation first got involved in planning a county fairgrounds a year ago when a donor offered to provide land through a deferred gift annuity with the nonprofit foundation serving as a middleman. But that plan fell through.

Still, the foundation kept the $300,000 because there were other land deals possible culminating in the sale last week.

“It was just a continuation,” Binek said.