Pioneer Village dispute headed for court

A dispute over the future of the Pioneer Village on the North Dakota State Fairgrounds appears to be headed to court.

The North Dakota State Fair Board wants the Historical Society to move the museum off the fairgrounds and to use the property for eventual expansion and other purposes; the Ward County Historical Society maintains it has a legal right to keep the museum on the fairgrounds under the terms of a 1966 contract, which states that “the North Dakota State Fair Association will allow the Northwest North Dakota Historical Society to maintain and operate its building located on the fairgrounds.”

A group of Minot community leaders had attempted to broker a deal that would have provided the historical society with financial assistance to move the museum to city-owned land not far from the Minot Air Museum, near the Cameron Indoor Tennis Center, or to two acres of land owned by the Minot Park District north of Roosevelt Park. Both properties were suggested as sites that would allow the pioneer village to further expand and, in the case of the land near the Air Museum, perhaps attract similarly historically-minded visitors.

After touring both areas, historical society members rejected both offers as unsuitable for the historical society’s needs, according to John MacMartin, president of the Minot Area Chamber of Commerce, who updated the State Fair Board during a meeting Tuesday morning. No members of the historical society board or their attorney, Herb Meschke, were in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting, but fair board members had received copies of an e-mail sent by Bruce Brooks, treasurer of the historical society, that outlined the historical society’s position.

“The mission of the Ward County Historical Society has been, and remains, to provide access to the history and culture of our area to as many interested people as possible,” Brooks wrote in the email. “Since its inception, the Society has maintained the Pioneer Village as the location for this through its presence at the State Fair Grounds, since it, the Village, was never intended to be a destination or a stand-alone attraction. Because well over three quarters of the annual visitors to the Village take advantage of it during the Fair, the mission of the Society has been attained. Moving the Village to a location that is not easily accessible would severely impact annual visitation, unless the overall concept of the Society and Village were considerably expanded. The Village would necessarily need to be expanded physically and financially to become a destination for interested parties. It would no longer be a place to which people walked while visiting the Fair or other activities on the Fairgrounds.”

Brooks further said that it would require significant financing for additional buildings, parking and personnel, none of the which the historical society has, to turn the pioneer village into a destination like Bonanzavile or Buckshot Junction equivalent. Moving the museum to another site would not justify the expense of moving and relocation, he wrote.

The State Fair’s long-term plans calls for eventually building a large convention center on the fairgrounds where the exposition and dairy barns, Jaycees Building and 4-H Building are located. The State Fair also wants to relocate the road that runs by the Pioneer Village Museum on the fairgrounds, which would require moving the museum off the fairgrounds. MacMartin said community leaders felt the city could afford to help the historical society move off the fairgrounds, but couldn’t afford to move the North Dakota State Fair. MacMartin said during the meeting Tuesday that no financial support for relocating the buildings will be available if the dispute does go to court. The community leaders that had come forward to try to broker the deal included representatives of the Chamber of Commerce, Visit Minot, the Norsk Hostfest, the Lee Group and Minot Mayor Curt Zimbelman.

The State Fair Board had given the historical society a Sept. 1 deadline to come back with a plan for relocating the museum, which has passed. At the meeting Tuesday, the fair board also unanimously rejected a counter-proposal from the historical society to relocate museum buildings a short distance, so they would stand in a straight line along the Souris River on the west side of the fairgrounds and free up more space for the State Fair’s use. Some Fair board members felt that option would be as costly as relocating the buildings off the fairgrounds entirely and would not solve the problem.

State Fair Manager Renae Korslien said she consulted with the city and was told it would not be possible to fill in the dead loop of the river with dirt, another proposal made by the historical society. While historical society board members said they feared that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would demand repayment for buildings repaired with FEMA dollars following the flood of 2011 if the museum were relocated, Korslien said that would not be the case. FEMA doesn’t have a policy that precludes relocating buildings repaired with public assistance funding, according to a letter from Greg Wilz, director of Homeland Security for the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services.

The two sides also continue to disagree over the terms of the original 1966 contract. State Fair Board members on Tuesday questioned whether the terms allow the historical society to maintain only one building or several buildings. Some State Fair Board members said there are no records of permission being given to move several other buildings onto the museum grounds over the last several decades. However, in May, Meschke, a retired state supreme court justice, told the State Fair Board that there is some ambiguity in whether the word “building” refers to one or several buildings, but case law generally favors the precedent that has been set up until the time of any disagreement over a contract and the historical society has operated its historical buildings on the fairgrounds for 47 years. The State Fair Board disagrees with that interpretation of the contract.

Fair board members expressed disappointment that representatives of the historical society were not at the State Fair Board meeting to answer questions and that they had not accepted the offer of help from the community leaders. After the vote, the fair board went into executive session to discuss legal options with its attorney, Pete Hankla.

Brooks said in a phone interview following the meeting Tuesday morning that the historical society had not been invited to the meeting. While they could have attended the meeting, since it was open to the public, they felt the board would have invited them “if they had really wanted us there.”

Bernice Galusha, secretary of the historical society board, said in a separate phone interview Tuesday that she was never told about the meeting on Tuesday and would have been there “with bells on” had she known.

“I can’t believe I wasn’t told about that meeting,” she said.

Both Brooks and Galusha also said the dispute is likely going to court.

“I don’t see any other option, unfortunately,” Brooks said, adding that the historical society board has made good faith efforts to look at other options for relocating the museum. “They don’t agree with our proposals and we don’t agree with theirs.”

“The best thing that could happen is for them to take us to court,” said Galusha, who said the state fair board “will never win.” Galusha said she is confident that the historical society has a strong legal position. Galusha said she was among the historical society board members who looked at the proposed alternate locations for the museum, but neither was suitable. The land near the Air Museum “could never fit our situation,” said Galusha and the land north of Roosevelt Park is “barely two acres” and too near the railroad tracks. She said she heard two trains go by during the half hour she was touring the property. The North Dakota State Fairgrounds is the perfect location for the pioneer village, she said.

Galusha, who was also on the historical society board a number of years ago, said the city of Minot and Ward County gave separate, official permission to relocate at least two of the buildings to the museum grounds the Samuelson house and a warehouse. The county officially approved one and the city approved the other, she said. She provided documentary evidence of the permission given to Meschke, the historical society’s attorney. Galusha said there were “handshake agreements” with previous fair board members to move buildings onto the museum grounds.

Galusha said she is concerned about the financial costs to the historical society of taking the dispute to court but “we’ll get through it.”

Brooks said the historical society will be waiting for the next move from the State Fair Board.

Korslien said late Tuesday afternoon that the State Fair Board is sticking by its earlier decision to ask the historical society to move the museum off the grounds and didn’t make any other decisions during the meeting Tuesday.