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Engelstad family gifts focus on education, charities

Kris Engelstad McGarry

GRAND FORKS—Kris Engelstad McGarry, daughter of University of North Dakota alumnus and mega-donor Ralph Engelstad, caused a stir Wednesday, May 9, when she told Forum News Service that relations had become strained between her family's foundation and her father's alma mater.

For UND, the frayed friendship could have a real cost beyond any sentimental value. Engelstad, a businessman who made his fortune in casinos and construction, is the donor of the $110 million hockey arena in Grand Forks that bears his name. Upon his death in 2002, his assets endowed the Engelstad Family Foundation, a philanthropic organization with about $800 million in reported assets.

McGarry is one of three trustees for the foundation, a board that also includes her 85-year-old mother, Betty Engelstad. Since its creation, the foundation's gifts have been wide-ranging around some consistent themes and recipients, according to years of publicly available tax filings. Chief among the causes that receive money from the Engelstad funds are those in education, the arts, health research and care for those with disabilities.

The family has also directed a large portion of its giving to Catholic charities and institutions, including millions of dollars to Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas.

Since its 2002 creation, the family foundation has reportedly donated more than $225 million to a variety of causes and organizations. UND was the recipient of a $20 million endowment made by the family in 2007, a donation paid out over a decade.

Most of the foundation's gifts are directed to charities in Las Vegas—where the Engelstad family has lived for many years and where the foundation is based—or Nevada as a whole. The foundation also distributes widely in Mississippi, where Ralph Engelstad operated a casino in Biloxi, and elsewhere on the Gulf Coast.

In North Dakota, UND and the Ralph Engelstad Arena itself have been the largest steady recipients of foundation money. But there are other regular, regional appearances on the giving list as well. Another major recipient is the Metro Sports Foundation, of Fargo, which has received millions of dollars from the family foundation over the past few years, including a $5.5 million gift made in 2015. Metro Sports is the owner-operator of the Scheels Arena, opened in 2008 as the Urban Plains Center hockey arena.

The family has also regularly given funds to Catholic institutions both in North Dakota and in Minnesota, where Ralph Engelstad was from. That includes consistent donations to Sacred Heart School in East Grand Forks—most recently, a $2.5 million grant for a new addition—as well as Good Samaritan Church of Larimore, N.D., which received a $100,000 gift in 2012.

Outside of faith-based organizations, the family foundation has given to a host of other regional causes, such as the public schools in Engelstad's hometown of Thief River Falls. In 2005, the foundation gave $300,000 to the Thief River Education Foundation.

In 2012, the foundation gave $250,000 to the Bottineau winter park ski center. Tax filings for the year after that show a $500,000-plus contribution to Grand Forks parks and, in 2016, the foundation gave $500,000 to the Community Violence Intervention Center of Grand Forks.

Range of gifts

Some of the Engelstads' regular recipients see relatively smaller contributions.

That might include the NAACP, of which various chapters have received steady annual donations of $25,000. That could also count the Nevada chapter of a national foundation for hemophiliacs, a group the Engelstad foundation has regularly given $10,000 per year.

But other donations can be quite hefty.

Over the course of its existence, the foundation has given about $22 million to Opportunity Village, one of Las Vegas' largest organizations for disabled adults. Opportunity Village was given $5 million in 2015 alone. In the same year, the Nevada-based Animal Foundation pet shelter received $4.5 million from the Engelstads.

Aside from more traditional social-welfare-focused groups, the Engelstad Foundation has also contributed large sums of money to arts and culture.

That includes millions of dollars over the years to the Utah Shakespeare Festival, as well as to the Las Vegas Smith Center for the Performing Arts. For tax year 2014 alone, the family gave the Shakespeare group $1.25 million and the performing arts center $2 million.

Intersecting with many of the above categories is higher education. The Engelstad Foundation has invested a great deal of its giving to programs in health sciences. As one result of that, the College of Southern Nevada—recipient of millions from the foundation—now features the Ralph and Betty Engelstad School of Health Sciences.

The family also pledged tens of millions of dollars to the former Nevada Cancer Institute. That center began as a private organization, was absorbed by University of California-San Diego Health and is now part of Roseman University College of Medicine, an institution that would be Nevada's first private, nonprofit medical degree-granting school. The Engelstad Foundation pledged $10 million to Roseman in 2017.

McGarry said the focus on health and, specifically, cancer research comes from a family origin. She is a cancer survivor, and her father died of lung cancer in 2002.

Rescinding a gift

The foundation's wide net of donations may have reached other schools, but for much its existence its higher education focus has centered on UND and the University of Nevada Las Vegas, of which McGarry is an alumna.

In 2009, the foundation endowed more than $12.6 million for a scholarship program at UNLV. That sum has been reported as the largest active endowment in the history of the Nevada System of Higher Education. The Engelstad foundation has also been a consistent supporter of the UNLV hockey program. Just about a week ago, the team unveiled a new locker room paid for with Engelstad dollars.

The foundation made recent headlines in Las Vegas for withdrawing a $14 million donation in response to the university president's announced departure. McGarry said the family "really endorsed our president," Len Jessup, particularly in support of his work for the university's fledgling medical school. The move to pull the donation, she said, was aimed at the Nevada system's board of regents.

"We had complete confidence in the president and said in our $14 million, if you—because it was widely rumored they were trying to get rid of him—if you force him out, we'll rescind our gift," McGarry said.

The foundation has taken a more activist role in Nevada than it has in North Dakota. As part of that, McGarry said the family is now working on legislation to reconfigure the roles of the Nevada system's chancellor and its board of regents.

It seems unlikely for now that the family will seek the same here. McGarry said she knows little of the North Dakota University System or the state's politics. She's also never met NDUS Chancellor Mark Hagerott, though she found it "curious" that he'd never reached out to the family, given its status as a major donor to the system's largest university.

Even with their differences, McGarry drew a strong parallel to the family's status in both states.

At UNLV, she said, the foundation will make good on its scholarship promises for students but "won't do anything else" for administrators until structural changes are made to solidify the relationship between Engelstad and institution.

"It's very similar to this," she said, speaking of UND, "we won't do anything else with UNLV until that system changes, because it's another pit, of putting money into this hole—they don't have it, they need it."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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