Fargo, N.D. — One of the first things you see when you de-plane at Fargo, N.D.’s tiny Hector Airport is a green-and-yellow North Dakota State athletics advertisement.
No big deal you might think, until you realize it’s just the first salvo in a NDSU marketing blitz.
Fargo, one of the nation’s most livable U.S. cities, is awash in hometown NDSU green-and-yellow. Billboards, signage, well wishes from local businesses, it’s an assault on the senses.
Some of it is originated by NDSU, but an equal amount of it is organic, fans unabashedly showing their pride in their hometown team. The Bison (or Bi-zon as they pronounce it up here) are a way of life. The point was emphatically driven home on a visit to Fargo’s huge sporting goods store, Scheels. The NDSU merchandise display exceeded what you normally see for Indiana and Purdue in the Hoosier State, much less what you see for Indiana State in Terre Haute.
This level of fan interest is nothing new in my Missouri Valley Conference travels. All over the conference, the local school is a fabric of life in their communities. It can range from the full-on blitz seen in Fargo to more sedate displays like street signs with the school’s logo on them, or something as simple having store displays with the school colors prominently displayed.
There’s no demographic distinction in this. In larger cities (Wichita and Omaha) and smaller cities (Carbondale, Ill. and Macomb, Ill.) than Terre Haute, you get a real sense that the local team is an integral part of everyday life.
You never get that sense here in Terre Haute. With some notable exceptions from local donors and businesses, ISU athletics are met with apathy by the community. If ISU is a part of the fabric of Terre Haute life, it’s frayed, almost hidden fabric that just barely holds together a tenuous relationship between a city and university that too often fail to realize they can both benefit by a mutual partnership.
This is important because not only does ISU have to compete on the field with these schools, but off it too, for sponsorship and fan support in the community it calls home. And if ISU’s football program has been an embarrassment for a generation, the ISU-Terre Haute partnership has been just as bad for just as long.
By most accounts from long-time residents, ISU repaid the apathy with apathy of its own. The mutual attitude was you do your thing and we’ll do ours, mutually damaging to both parties, who could do so much more together.
Terre Haute mayor Duke Bennett has seen this too. He accompanied the ISU football team on the trip to Fargo last weekend, but he’s been around this rodeo before, having gone on the road to see ISU play in other conference venues before he was mayor. What he saw in Fargo — which not only wears its love for their Bison on their sleeves, but which also built a beautiful 18,000-seat domed stadium for NDSU and the community at-large — didn’t surprise Bennett so much as confirm what he already knew.
“I travel to a lot of basketball locations — Cardondale, Peoria, even Evansville — and you see more integration and you see more pride. People are thinking about their university, they’re excited about what’s going on,” Bennett said. “A lot of times Indiana State has been an island within itself.”
Bennett said that the only way to break the deadlock is for one partner to reach out to another. In the athletics realm, ISU has done a better job of this during the Ron Prettyman administration, and there are signs that Dr. Daniel Bradley’s administration has a similar desire to do the same for the university as a whole.
Bennett stressed that this isn’t an overnight process. Hauteans aren’t going to wake up one morning and suddenly support ISU out of the blue. It’s an effort that’s going to take time.
“I don’t get that feeling that the community really wants to be a part of the Indiana State environment and Indiana State kind of feels that way about the city. My role, or my goal, is to tear those walls down, to stop that division. What can I do as the mayor? I can invite people to be excited about Indiana State and our other schools too,” Bennett said. “[Indiana State] is such a large employer, it’s such a huge economic engine, we all ought to be participating in that. So I think it’s a lot of little things we need to build up over the long haul.”
ISU has made initial progress in this mode with community outreach and a stated desire to involve the community. Again, Bennett stressed patience in how quickly such effort will bear fruit.
“I’ve seen a little bit of [evidence the outreach is having an affect], but I don’t see a lot. It’s that growing thing, you have to take what you’ve got and grow it. Every year when the students come back, we need to do more things as a community to make them knowledgeable, make them aware of what’s going on the campus. Something at Hulman Center, at Tilson, or a sporting event. We need to find ways to get the community to be excited about things we have going on. Once you expose them to it, they’ll come back,” Bennett said.
On the athletic front, winning helps, and that’s totally incumbent on ISU to solve, but the community itself can help too. If the community truly desires a winner, an investment in an endeavor that helps makes winner easier can be a boon to the university and community as a whole.
The Fargodome, built in 1992, is the ultimate example of what a community-university partnership can bring. Fargo approved a one-cent sales tax to fund construction of the building, which is owned by the city, but leased to the university. The tax not only funded the building, but Fargo built up a $15-million surplus from the tax.
In the period since the Fargodome was built, NDSU has gone from an obscure Division II program with limited scope in a sparsely populated state to a full Division I university that was ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation this year in the FCS football poll.
Fargo has responded with large crowds and a festival-like atmosphere before games, where tailgating is a prominent thing to do during NDSU home weekends.
“This place [Fargodome], there’s about 17,000 people here tonight. There’s not a lot going on in Fargo, but they want to be here. People were here five hours before the game started to get in [the parking lot] to do tailgating. That’s the kind of thing you have to build on,” Bennett said.
ISU is actively trying to build a multi-purpose, on-campus stadium that could serve football and other sports. Is this a path Terre Haute should not explore, but get behind from a community standpoint? It would do wonders to break down the walls between city and university.
“This [the Fargodome] is really nice, I’ve never seen anything like this before other than at the professional level. I really think we could have some increased opportunities to work together to make a community facility which is multi-purpose where we could do lots of things, just like Hulman Center, with the idea behind it,” Bennett said.
“We could do the same thing with a stadium type of venture, we’ll just have to see … you have to have private donors to make that possible,” Bennett added. “That’s the thing. If you can get people excited about what’s going on and make it a multi-purpose thing, get some return on the investment, then it’s a very doable thing.”
Would a Fargo scenario be feasible or realistic in Terre Haute?
“They did it in Indianapolis, they did it with a beverage tax. The food and beverage tax funded Lucas Oil Stadium. You can do that, it takes an act of the Legislature to allow you to do that kind of thing, but it’s becoming an increasing way to do it,” Bennett said. “When you have visitors coming to Terre Haute, they’re not paying our taxes, but they’re using our streets, they’re using our public safety, they don’t pay anything. If they come into town and pay a food and beverage tax, or a lodging tax, at least they’re sharing in the cost of developing something. If they come to your town to go to an event there, they’re helping pay for it, instead of putting it on the local taxpayers. I think that’s a very common way to do things.”
It’s a pipe dream now, but Terre Haute and ISU should dare to dream. The path is in front of them and the success of such partnerships are evident in places like Fargo.
“It will be tough, but I think it’s something we all need to look at. I think we need to take an honest look at how we can improve things in Terre Haute since we’re losing property tax dollars through our new plan. We don’t have money to go around, so when you do it, there has to be a return on the investment,” Bennett said.
The halftime interview ended as NDSU’s fans roared when their Bison re-entered the field. An appropriate coda, given that traveling to a place like Fargo drives home just what the return on their investment has meant.
It also emphatically drove home what it can mean when a school is part of the fabric of the community. Terre Haute can do this too.
Note: The full transcript of the interview with Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett is on Todd Golden’s Down In The Valley blog. The address is blogs.tribstar.com/downinthevalley
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fargo, N.D. — One of the first things you see when you de-plane at Fargo, N.D.’s tiny Hector Airport is a green-and-yellow North Dakota State athletics advertisement.
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