BEMIDJI – Changing landscapes.
Perhaps that’s the easiest way to sum up the top stories in the North Country for 2012, which marked the 75th anniversary for the Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues along the shores of Lake Bemidji.
The landscape changed, literally, in a matter of minutes when a violent storm, packing winds in excess of 80 mph, swept through the region just before 7 p.m. July 2.
The winds left a wide swath of destruction, decimating trees across more than 1,000 square miles, downing power lines and knocking out power to 25,000 customers from Park Rapids to Grand Rapids.
Those attending the Bemidji Jaycees Water Carnival scrambled for cover in downtown Bemidji businesses while campers in parks across the region were forced to run for cover.
Despite the destruction, there were no reported deaths or injuries. In the aftermath, electricity took days to restore as crews worked 18-hour shifts, including during Fourth of July holiday. Additional storms rocked the region in the days that followed and cleanup – in Bemidji’s parks and along curbsides – took weeks.
Mother Nature proved to be a big story in other ways during the past year: the thermometer reached 50 in January, a lack of precipitation kept the area facing drought conditions and heightened fire risk, and a December storm coated highways with ice, sending hundreds into roadside ditches.
But as big of a role that weather played in 2012, other stories were memorable.
The changing political landscape also proved noteworthy.
For the first time, Bemidji voters in November selected a woman to be the city’s mayor. Rita Albrecht, the Ward 4 councilor, unseated Dave Larson for the post. Voters also selected 23-year-old Michael Meelhause as the Ward 1 council member, making him one of the youngest ever to serve in the position. Ward 5 residents returned Nancy Erickson to the seat she previously held, choosing her over incumbent Greg Negard.
In another first, Leech Lake Tribal members in June voted Carri Jones as the tribe’s first female chairperson.
A state judicial panel redrew legislative boundaries in 2012, a dynamic that pitted several incumbents against each other in the November general election. It also saw a Baudette challenger knock off a Bemidji lawmaker.
In a race of incumbents, in the redrawn Senate District 5, Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, topped Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji. Likewise, in reshaped House District 5A race, John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, beat Larry Howes, R-Walker.
Challenger Roger Erickson, DFL-Baudette, beat incumbent Dave Hancock, R-Bemidji, for the House 2A seat.
When it came to the national political scene, Bemidji also made headlines.
Rick Santorum, a one-time presidential candidate, visited Bemidji in February. The former Pennsylvania senator brought notoriety to the city and Bemidji Woolen Mills, which made his campaign’s popular sweater vest.
For Beltrami County, an administrative leadership change made the news.
Tony Murphy, the Beltrami County administrator for more than a decade, turned in his resignation in late March, prompting a lengthy search for a replacement. Kay Mack, longtime auditor/treasurer, was selected to fill the position.
For months, some longstanding issues proved to dominate discussions in Bemidji.
An administrative law judge ruled Bemidji’s planned annexation of Northern and Bemidji townships was valid. But by July, Bemidji Township filed suit against the city in an attempt to invalidate an orderly annexation agreement. A court hearing is scheduled next month as the issue continues to play out.
The city also was the subject of a lawsuit appeal filed by Birchmont Drive property owners in a longstanding dispute about assessments for a utility extension project. That issue also is not resolved.
City officials found themselves grappling with other controversial issues, too.
Area landlords objected to the city’s experimental parking permit plan for a neighborhood adjacent to Bemidji State University. The city proposed to offer 112 on-street permits, for $30 apiece, to residents living between Birchmont Drive to Bemidji Avenue and 10th to 17th streets northwest.
Instead, the city opted to repaint curbs leading to alleys and intersections and erect more signs to indicate where parking is allowed.
Debate about a downtown bike rack boiled over as opponents objected to its installation in a parking spot outside of the Cabin Coffeehouse and Café. Finally the brightly colored bicycle rack was installed outside of Patterson’s Menswear instead.
Some city issues, though, produced healthy dialogue and discussion.
Members from the Minnesota Design Team, after meeting with community stakeholders in September, suggested an enhanced Mississippi Riverfront area, a narrower Bemidji Avenue near downtown and new development near Bemidji State University as improvements to the city. The team’s presentation also suggested eliminating the center turn lane on Bemidji Avenue from Third to Fifth streets, which would reduce traffic speed, improve pedestrian safety and allow the Carnegie Library to remain in its current place while adding green space in front.
The Save the Carnegie committee continued its quest to raise money to restore the aging building, which was given a temporary reprieve from demolition.
The Chief Bemidji statue committee chose Gareth Curtiss, of Olympia, Wash., to design and produce a bronze sculpture of Shaynowishkung, who was given the honorary title of Chief Bemidji by early settlers, to replace the existing wooden Chief Bemidji statue along the Lake Bemidji waterfront.
On the business front, numerous changes took hold during the year.
The landscape began taking shape along Bemidji’s south shore as construction started on the six-story DoubleTree hotel, next to an expanded Green Mill and the Hampton Inn & Suites.
However, a promised 121-room Country Inn and Suites hotel and Crooked Pint Ale House, adjacent to the city-owned Sanford Center, faced several delays. It is unclear when construction might begin.
VenuWorks, contracted by the city to manage the Sanford Center, fired executive director Roger Swanson in August. The company has since hired Curtis Webb as the center’s third director since its doors opened in fall 2010. Webb takes the helm starting this week.
Numerous businesses – Kmart, Play It Again Sports and Pamida – closed their doors in 2012 after years of business.
On a positive note, Joe Lueken garnered international media attention with an announcement that his three stores – the two in Bemidji and another in Wahpeton, N.D. – would be sold to employees at the start of 2013.
And the Bemidji Brewing Co. tapped its first kegs so its beer can be sold commercially.
In April, Sanford Health celebrated a groundbreaking for the new Sanford Orthopedics and Sports Medicine Center.
The U.S. Postal Service’s mail sorting facility in Bemidji also survived a round of cuts, which would mean the loss of overnight mail. The push to keep Bemidji’s facility was led by U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.
Students First, an initiative started by Bemidji Leads!, wrapped up its first year in the spring and expanded by the fall to work with more children. The program, which aims to provide students with success coaches to help them reach goals, is the first of its kind in the country.
At least two big announcements came from Bemidji State University this fall.
The university renamed the Education-Arts Building as Bensen Hall after the former BSU president.
In November, current President Dick Hanson then said athletic director Rick Goeb would be replaced after this academic year. The move, announced in emails to staff and boosters, cited a Collegiate Consulting report showing the university’s struggles to remain competitive in athletics and the need to raise more money.
Other notable stories for 2012 revolved around first responders and law enforcement.
In early April, tragedy at Clearwater Lake, on the border of Beltrami and Clearwater counties, killed two siblings and severely injured a third.
Dan Risland of Leonard took his three sons out on the lake in a 10-foot sailboat, which capsized. The boys wore life jackets, but remained in the 40-degree water for about an hour. Isaiah Risland, 8, survived after a lengthy hospital stay, but 6-year-old Zechariah and 2-year-old Jacob, died, apparently from hypothermia.
And the year’s most notable crime stories included a 25-person federal indictment against members of the Native Mob, a well-structured, highly organized gang with influence from the Twin Cities to reservations throughout Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Among those indicted were men from Bemidji and Cass Lake.
In other cases, a burning cross was placed in the yard of a Northern Township resident in May. The bias crime led to a community rally and the eventual rest of two men. A Bagley woman pleaded guilty to child endangerment after leaving four young children unattended in a car for nearly 30 minutes while she shopped for swimsuits in Bemidji’s Target store one day in June. It was 88 degrees at the time.
And in October, 31-year-old Matt Pulis went missing. Land and water searches have failed to turn up signs of the Bemidji man.