I’ve got a problem. I need to write a column that is going to be kind of critical of three people I like, and I’m trying to figure out how to do it without making them all angry at me. Their names are Sara, Doug and Marvin. They’re all kind of half-ass friends of mine. And I’m not sure I want to be critical of what they are doing, or have already done, except that they’re doing some weird shit and somebody needs to tell the story. So I’m just going to start typing and see what comes out.
It’s about Rep. Marvin Nelson’s bill to have a contest to create a new logo for North Dakota tourism, North Dakota House Bill 1457 in the 66th Legislative Session, which is at its halfway point right now.
The bill is being favorably looked on so far in the 2019 Legislative Session, at least in an amended version, and it is a black mark on the state’s Tourism Office. It looks to me like the state’s Tourism Director, Sara Coleman, is being thrown under the bus by her boss, the Governor, and the Legislature. As a former State Tourism director myself, the whole thing makes me sad. This should not be happening.
Nelson started out with a wild, over-the-top idea to poke Gov. Doug Burgum, who it appears went meddling in the affairs of the State Tourism Office and threw a little contract at a former employee of his to create a new logo for Coleman and her office to use in promoting the state. The former employee, who runs a little business over in Minnesota, created what’s been labeled a bad logo, and I can imagine how Coleman’s heart sank when she saw it, and had to accept it. The logo has been roundly criticized by the state’s artistic and marketing communities.
Artists and marketers circulated an online letter to the governor criticizing the logo and about a thousand people signed it. The governor’s got a thick skin, though, when it comes to marketing, and it’s pretty hard to be critical of his business success, and he pretty much told them to stuff it.
So Nelson proposed in his bill to have a contest to design a new state logo and pay the winner $50,000. Egads. I expected the bill to die a swift death, but legislators from the governor’s own party like to tweak him from time to time, so instead of killing it, they changed the prize money to just $9,500, the same amount the state had paid the governor’s former employee on a no-bid contract — state law doesn’t require competitive bids for jobs that cost less than $10,000, and the price for this one conveniently came in just under that amount — and then passed it, with most Republican legislators voting for it. More than a few of them giggled when they looked up at the voting board, I’m guessing. Democrats, too. Nelson was likely convulsing in his seat trying not to roar in delight.
So now, it is up to the Senate to decide whether to continue down this path. I mean, really, do we want to have a contest to accomplish what should be done by a professional marketing firm?
The Tourism Office’s ad agency is Odney Advertising, and that may be the reason the governor did what he did. Odney is headed by Pat Finken, who pretty much managed the gubernatorial campaign of Burgum’s opponent in the 2016 primary, Wayne Stenehjem, and Finken was pretty critical of Burgum in that race. Slapping Pat around a bit by taking the logo design project away from him is perfectly logical. Kind of like the Legislature, which is pretty much full of Stenehjem supporters, slapping the governor around with this bill. With Nelson, a Democrat, as the foil, er, bill sponsor.
So, is it a bad logo? You can look at it and decide for yourself.
Yeah, I think it is a little lame. But … There’s something subtle I like about it. The word DAKOTA jumps out at you, and the word North is de-emphasized.
As Sen. Tim Mathern pointed out to me —Mathern was the one who introduced a bill, with my enthusiastic support, 30 years ago now, in the 1989 Legislative Session, to drop the word North from the name of our state and just call it Dakota, a bill I enthusiastically supported as Tourism director — maybe this was the first step in renewing that effort. And Burgum was a supporter of changing the name himself when he was back at Great Plains Software, so let’s wait and see, Mathern suggested — maybe we’ve got a new movement started, with a governor behind it. So let’s not jump on the critics’ bandwagon.
To refresh your memory, Burgum spent a bit of Great Plains’ money to do market research on the impact of changing the name of the state to Dakota back in 2001. It was part of an effort by the state’s chamber of commerce, known back then as the Greater North Dakota Association, to explore ways to revitalize the state’s economy, and a GNDA committee gave serious consideration to sponsoring a name change initiative, although it didn’t go anywhere.
But Burgum himself was a pretty enthusiastic supporter of changing the name, having this conversation with a New Yorker magazine reporter in 2002:
”Words are powerful, names are powerful. The word ‘north,’ for instance — unless you’re a polar explorer, there’s nothing that excites the mind about the word. Some people think it’s intellectually dishonest of us to drop the ‘North.’ But we’re north only in relative terms. We’re north of South Dakota, but we’re not north of Winnipeg or several major European countries. The geographical center of North America is in Rugby, North Dakota. But people look at weather maps that don’t show Canada, and in the American mind-set we’re thought of as the end of the road.
”No state has ever changed its name. It appeals to me for that reason alone — that it’s never been done before. One definition of an adventure is an uncertain outcome. Why not just do it for ourselves?”
Is this new logo, with a little North and a big DAKOTA, a revival of that scheme to change the name of the state?
I hope so! I’ve never given up on the idea that we don’t need an adjective in our state’s name. DAKOTA will work just fine.
So senators, I’m suggesting you just dispose of this idea and save the state $9,500. But if you decide to join in the fun and make North Dakota Tourism the laughing stock of the 50 state tourism offices, well, I’m ready to submit my entry. The governor’s only gone halfway making North small and DAKOTA big. I’ll go all the way and make North invisible. You can just go ahead and send me the check, Sara, and Doug and Marvin.
And since I’m finally weighing in on the Legislature after a month’s hiatus while I enjoyed some time in the desert with my wife, let me just comment on a more serious issue. The Legislature is trying to figure out, after some prodding from Gov. Burgum, how many State Boards of Higher Education we should have: We have one now, but maybe we should have two, or three, Burgum has suggested.
I’m for two. We should have one that is just like we have now, an overworked volunteer board, which meets every couple of months and runs the state’s higher education system.
The second one should have just one responsibility: Hiring the president of the University of North Dakota. It will probably need to be a full-time board.