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$150 million convention center eyed for North Dakota oil patch

By Ernest Scheyder

WILLISTON (Reuters) - A subsidiary of real estate developer The Prime Group Inc said on Monday it plans to build a $150 million convention center in Williston, North Dakota, aiming to supply a world-class meeting space for the fast-growing oil boom community.

The 16-story complex, which wouldn't open until 2016 at the earliest and still needs funding and approval from city officials, would have more than 600,000 square feet of space, including indoor and outdoor exhibition areas, a Ruth's Chris Steak House, retail shops, office space, underground parking and a 300-room hotel.

"We really want to connect with the oil industry and ensure their needs are served," John Breugelmans, a principle with The Prime Group subsidiary BR Investments LLC, said in a presentation to reporters. "The oil boom is far from its peak."

Most large-scale meetings and conventions in Williston are now held in small hotels not originally designed for that purpose. For instance, while 110 prospective employers participated in a recent job fair, city officials said they had to turn away more than 100 due to space limitations.

Oil companies have sought out facilities for routine workforce training seminars only to be frustrated by the lack of space. Baker Hughes Inc built its own training center since it could not find available space in Williston.

The Prime Group expects to spend about $110 million of its own funds on the project and is seeking public financing for the rest, Breugelmans said.

The breakdown effectively mirrors the project's scope: Breugelmans' group would pay for one of two buildings on the site, which would contain all facilities except the convention hall.

The Prime Group is asking Williston to finance $40 million for the freestanding convention hall itself, which as designed would evoke clusters of North Dakota's shale rock from which more than 1 million barrels of oil are pulled each month.

A new convention center could prove popular with the scores of oil and natural gas companies and their suppliers with offices in Williston, considered the de facto capital of the North Dakota oil boom.

Breugelmans said he hopes to break ground in early 2015 on the convention center, with construction taking about 15 to 18 months. The project won't take off without public financing though, he said.

With roughly $1.05 billion in planned infrastructure projects through 2020, it's unclear how Williston would pay for the project or whether it would prefer to divert funds to other projects, including a proposed new airport.

Howard Klug, Williston's newly elected mayor and president of the Williston Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he supports the concept of a new convention space in the city, but he has not yet decided whether to support Breugelmans' project.

Klug has formed a committee to study the idea of a new convention center and potential funding. He expects that study to be done by year's end, but doubts residents would accept a new sales tax to fund the project.

(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; editing by Andrew Hay)

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