Pioneer Village dispute was never going to end well

While the specifics to the conclusion of the conflict between the North Dakota State Fair and the Ward County Historical Society was a debate in which many indulged, the philosophical outcome never quite seemed mysterious – one way or another, it wasn’t going to end well. And so it appears it will not, despite the possibility of one more appeal to the state’s top court.

Southwest District Court Judge Rhonda Ehlis ruled Thursday that the State Fair Association owns the land under the museum and can revoke its permission for most of the buildings in the museum to remain. Ehlis ruled that two of the buildings, the Butler Building and the Ward County Courthouse, can remain under the terms of a 1966 agreement and the State Fair will have to file or continue an eviction action to have those two buildings removed.

State Fair Association General Manager Renae Korslien said Friday she is happy with the judge’s ruling that means the State Fair can order the Pioneer Village Museum removed from the fairgrounds. Meanwhile, the Ward County Historical Society president said the judge’s decision could mean the destruction of historical buildings and artifacts. President David Leite said he does not know yet whether the historical society will appeal the decision to the State Supreme Court.

After years of cooperative co-existence, conflict took to the courts five years ago. It has been a back-and-forth legal struggle ever since. Both sides brought good arguments into the debate, if somewhat more complicated legally than either side necessarily wanted to acknowledge. While taking back control of the property will eventually empower NDSF to expand (a convention center on the site has been one possibility discussed), the fate of Pioneer Village, its structures, collection and operations remain very much in danger. There is no readily available backup plan and relocation is cost prohibitive at this time.

This may be a case in which the public will have to decide the value of Pioneer Village and whether or not it warrants saving. This is not an era in which public money is readily available for a project like this, even if the desire was there.

Could private entities step forward to assist? Would other institutions be willing to partner with the historical society; and, even if so, from where does the relocation funding come?

One set of challenging questions or another was always going to emerge when this case was resolved. The certainities were that some would be upset at an eventual decision and that, in the big picture, a mutually beneficial outcome seemed little more than a dream.