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Financial institution Alerus bought the naming rights to the Alerus Center, a $79 million indoor arena and convention center which opened in 2001. IMAGE: Alerus

North Dakota banks: Giving back as economic development

“Any community project that affects the greater good is worthy of our consideration and support. If our community benefits, the bank benefits.” 

-- Christie Obenauer, CEO and president, Union State Bank, Hazen, N.D.

BISMARCK, N.D. – Banks are known for supporting the communities they serve. When banks put their own resources behind community projects and donate funds to local charities, they do it for good reason.

From a marketing standpoint, the actions get the bank’s name out there, shed a positive light on the institution and position it as promoting the general good.

But beyond the public relations considerations, the philosophy of “giving back” seems to be ingrained in the banking profession itself, passed down through generations and corporate culture.

“I was raised to value the importance of giving back to my community,” says Craig Larson, CEO of Starion Bank of Bismarck, whose parents, Frank and JoAndrea Larson, had bought the bank’s forerunner – First National Bank of Oakes (N.D.) – in 1969.

Fourth-generation banker Christie Obenauer, CEO and president of Union State Bank of Hazen, N.D., echoes Larson’s sentiment. “The importance of generosity and giving back with a humble heart was definitely passed along to me by my family,” she said

Prairie Business asked North Dakota bankers to comment on their support of significant community projects, past or present, as well as identify a current, favorite project.


The Alerus Center, a $79 million indoor arena and convention center which opened in 2001, became a reality in Grand Forks after the devastating flood and fire of 1997. Alerus, the financial institution, lost its own downtown headquarters in the disaster.

The bank bought the naming rights for the center, paying $150,000 a year for 20 years, for a total of $3 million.

“When the opportunity to invest in the Alerus Center became available, we saw it as a chance to double-down on our commitment to the community and the region,” says Chris Wolf, Alerus’ northern valley market president.

Alerus was one of the first major sponsors of the Grand Forks Wild Hog Marathon, which will be celebrating its ninth year in 2019. In addition to supporting the race event financially, Alerus employees traditionally staff the marathon registration table for the entire day.

Choice Bank

In 2010, Choice Bank signed on as a 25-year naming sponsor, with a $2.75 million commitment, for the construction of a 162,000-square-foot health and fitness center in Grand Forks.

The $23.4 million center, operated by the Grand Forks Park District, includes sports courts, fitness machines, an aquatic complex and 3,500 square feet of group exercise studio space.

Since Choice Health and Fitness opened its doors in 2012, fundraising campaigns also have built Sunshine Hospitality Home – a low- or no-cost hospitality house for patients and families from around the region – and a new emergency shelter for the Community Violence Intervention Center, among other significant projects. “We knew that, if successful, the fitness center would help inspire future efforts and projects for the Grand Forks community,” says Choice CEO Brian Johnson.

Choice Bank also supports hospice care centers in Fargo, Grand Forks, Bismarck and Dickinson with “Go Hawaiian for Hospice!” Now in its seventh year, “Go Hawaiian!” invites the general public every summer to a luau-style feast. It has raised nearly $1 million through sponsorships, free-will donations and the enthusiasm of bank employees.

First International Bank & Trust

First International Bank & Trust and its owners, the Stenehjem family, have invested in the Watford City, N.D., community in many ways. A hallmark project, at a cost of approximately $10 million, was the renovation of an entire city block that included new bank headquarters, a restaurant, a movie theater and an historical gallery.

The bank started planning the project in 1999 and broke ground in 2004. Shortly after completion in 2006, oil started picking up in the Bakken, and Watford City experienced a boom.

“People asked me if I had a crystal ball. Really, I was just building on faith in our community, and being optimistic, maybe overly optimistic,” says Stephen Stenehjem, CEO and chairman.

With an April application deadline, First International will be conducting its fifth annual round of their Live First Community Grants, a program that awards $5,000 to one charity and $1,000 grants to three runners-up. Due to an overwhelming response in 2018, the bank provided additional grants for a total of $10,000.

Starion Bank

“In 2015, Mandan Parks and Recreation approached us about the sports complex,” recalls Craig Larson, Starion Bank’s CEO. “As soon as we heard the plans, we knew it was going to be a game-changer.”

Starion bought the 20-year naming rights for $750,000, and the official name of the 84,000-square-foot facility became the Starion Sports Complex. The $22 million project, which opened in September 2017, includes a two-rink hockey arena, a gymnastics facility, an outdoor track and a football field.

“Since the opening of the complex, we’ve seen great growth in northwest Mandan with businesses and housing,” says Larson.

In honor the bank’s 50th anniversary in 2019, each of Starion’s 247 employees will be granted two days of volunteer time off. In addition, each employee will be able to identify a charity or cause to get a $500 donation from the bank.

Union State Bank

Christie Obenauer, CEO and president of Hazen’s Union State Bank, points to the power of collaboration in building a new critical access hospital in Mercer County, N.D. The 25-bed Sakakawea Medical Center opened in 2017.

“Through the collaborative efforts of many partners, including our community banks, the Bank of North Dakota, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the unwavering support of our local community, we built a new facility that will take care of our community long into the future,” says Obenauer.

In addition to being at the planning table, the bank donated $250,000 to the project.

When a Hazen community health-needs assessment demonstrated a need for daycare, collaboration was key once again. Eight local businesses joined forces to form an innovative model for daycare: a cooperative.

Union State contributed $35,000 to the Energy Capital Child Care Cooperative, which also opened in 2107.

Tom Regan

Freelance writer