BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - The Legislature will decide if a last-minute proposal for a state-financed amusement and theme park along a major interstate would be an economic boon for an area with little else to offer, or if it would do nothing more than take taxpayers for a ride.
The idea that’s been quietly tucked into the state Commerce Department’s budget in the waning weeks of the legislative session would provide $65 million in loans and grants for the proposed locally-run facility on state-owned land adjacent to Interstate 94 near the existing National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown, which is about midway between Fargo and Bismarck.
Jamestown-area lawmakers pushing the project say they’re already being mocked by some colleagues for the proposal’s eye-popping price tag and for the facility itself, which would include bison-related attractions, a museum, an amphitheater, kid-friendly activities, tethered balloon rides and a zip line.
“It’s being called North Dakota’s Disneyland,” said Montpelier Republican Rep. Craig Headland.
He and Jamestown GOP Sen. Terry Wanzek said they believe the idea pushed by their constituents is a good one but both described state backing for it as a longshot.
“The people of Jamestown are all behind it,” Headland said.
The plan would rely mostly on $60 million in loans from newly approved legislation aimed at creating an in-state investment policy for North Dakota’s voter-approved oil tax savings account.
The legislation, signed by Republican Gov. Doug Burgum last week, would tap 20% of future oil tax collections coming into the Legacy Fund to help establish loans for expensive infrastructure projects and provide capital for in-state companies.
Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said the governor’s office has not reviewed the legislation.
“The governor wouldn’t comment on an amendment to a bill that hasn’t reached his desk,” Nowatzki said.
Bismarck GOP Rep. Mike Nathe, who sponsored the bipartisan legislation signed last week, said the Jamestown proposal fits its intent of investing in North Dakota, which is one of the least visited states.
The amendment has yet to be reviewed by legislative budget writers. Even if it’s accepted as an add-on to the state Commerce Department’s budget, the State Investment Board, which invests the Legacy Fund money, would still have to approve the idea.
The loan also would have to be matched with $5 million from local sources. If that is done, the project would then get a $5 million no-strings-attached grant from the state’s general fund, which largely comes from state taxes on income, sales, energy, tobacco and gambling.
Connie Ova, chief executive officer of the Jamestown-Stutsman Development Corp., said a study commissioned by her group found that almost 9 million vehicles pass the city annually along Interstate 94, and the goal would be to lure some of those travelers.
Though not officially named, the proposed facility is referred to as Buffalo City Park, she said, and would occupy just a fraction of the 120 acres of the state-owned land that is currently being used as a pasture for bison.
“We think there is a huge opportunity here and the community is very excited about it,” Ova said. “It opens the door to encourage tourism in North Dakota.”
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