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City manager, attorney address business community on events center

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John Chattin and Al Felix faced a firing squad armed with questions Wednesday.

Chattin, the Bemidji city manager, and Felix, the city attorney, attended a meeting hosted by the business community to answer questions about the proposed events center. Specifically, why the location has been moved from downtown.

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"The council was losing its enthusiasm for the project -and in part because it was getting too expensive," Chattin said.

The Bemidji City Council announced last month that it plans to locate the proposed events center on the south shore of Lake Bemidji, and not in the downtown railroad corridor as originally presented.

The arena that would house Bemidji State University hockey was the only piece of the project that appeared likely to be constructed and councilors were not happy about it, Chattin said.

There was a wonderful master plan that included green space, the entire three-component plan (arena, convention center, and second sheet of ice) and a new building for the Headwaters Science Center, he said.

"Never, ever are we going to see that master plan" completed, he said.

Meanwhile, ShoreQuest owner by John Zacher was poised to submit his final plat for Voyageur Crossing, a 74-acre development plat along the south shore of Lake Bemidji, on Nov. 1.

If that plat had been filed, the city never would have been able to secure land for trails and parks, Chattin said.

He was pressed about how councilors - who were said to be opposed to the downtown location due to cost - were now supporting the acquisition of 130 acres for a south shore-located events center.

Chattin said that the net costs must be considered, not just the expenses. The project has a better chance now of resulting in a full, three-component facility, he said.

He also was asked what the guarantee would be that a south shore-located events center would not spur a business district that would compete with the downtown.

Chattin said there is none.

"The more choices you have, the more traffic you'll generate," he said. "I think we've got to build a bigger pie and we'll all do better."

Felix referenced a study done on the area in 1999 that stated the community's desire to have hotels, motels, shops and restaurants in the area.

"That was the desired goal in 1999," he said.

Even if the south shore area produces businesses that compete with the downtown businesses, new development would bring new people into town, Felix said.,

"Everyone prospers because of that," he said.

Chattin also was faced with questions about the council's commitment to revitalizing downtown, a promise it made during last month's press conference. Business owners Tuesday night asked the council to consider increasing funding from $25,000 to $50,000 or more for a market study for downtown, business owners said.

Mike Smith, the president of the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, said the council must regain the trust of the business community, which has worked now on three failed projects: the proposed downtown parking lot, a redevelopment of the former Bemidji High School site and a downtown events center.

Also, business owners may not all live in the city limits, he said, but they contribute 45 percent of the city's tax dollars, Smith said.

"We have a voice. We need to be heard," he said.

The city still is negotiating with property owners to acquire the south shore land. Chattin was unable to offer a projected final cost for the land on Wednesday.

To purchase the land, the city plans to bond for funding and to utilize its half-cent sales tax revenue to buy park and trail land, Felix explained.

It hopes to get $2 million to $2.5 million from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to expand the Paul Bunyan Trail, Chattin said.

The city has approved purchase agreements for three pieces of property in the area, totaling more than $12 million. Chattin said the city's parks commission had planned to spend about $900,000 to buy park and trail land even before the events center discussion began.

Negotiations are continuing with Zacher, who owns more than 70 acres of land along the shore.

"That's the big one," Chattin said, "and we're obviously working on that very diligently."

While the city of Bemidji does not yet own the land, Chattin said the city's architect, design team and a consultant from Conventions, Sports and Leisure toured the site last week.

"We have a pretty good idea where the events center footprint would be," Chattin said, adding that the city also has a general idea as to where the trails and parks would be located.

Felix offered a history of the city's interest in the south shore of Lake Bemidji in which he said the city has long been interested in purchasing some land to extend the Paul Bunyan Trail. Additionally, the community voiced an interest in having a park located in the area, and the city began to consider expanding and improving Nymore Beach, he explained.

Then, the Bemidji City Council considered the possibility of locating the proposed events center on the property, Felix said.

Soon, the four parcels that the city initially was considering were not enough, he explained. The city began to contemplate buying the entire 130 acres in the area, which would allow it to fulfill all of its goals for the area and still have property left over for private development, Felix said.

Some questions directed to the staff members were focused on the potential of having private development accompanying the city's projects.

Would the private development subsidize the public projects?

"We certainly hope so," Chattin said.

The city also hopes to secure a developer interested in locating a hotel in the area that would compliment a convention center, he explained. But, whether the developer would be expected to be responsible for running and/or building a convention center to compliment the events center has not yet been decided, he said.

Chattin said he has been with the city of Bemidji for one year - and never received a phone call from a developer interested in partnering with the city on the events center.

In the last week and a half, he's had "several calls," Chattin said.

"There's a lot of interest," Chattin said.

Felix also said Bemidji has a need for an events center. When the Northern Inn announced that it was closing, it called customers that had reserved the facility for upcoming events and refunded their money, telling them they had to find another venue.

But, there wasn't one, Felix said.

"That's just one example of the need out there," he said.

Bill Batchelder, the president of the Bemidji Woolen Mills, challenged Chattin on how an expansive building and parking lot would fulfill the community's desire for green space in the south shore area.

Chattin explained that the city likely would end up with a mile-long park, with trails, that runs along the lakeshore and is anchored by city parks on both ends.

Batchelder argued that the city should construct hotels, motels, a water park and other amenities on the south shore and offer transportation to a downtown-located events center.

"I'm going to fight for the downtown site until it's built downtown," he said.

Several people voiced hurt feelings and surprise at the council's decision. No public hearings were held on the location change - and much of the work was done in closed sessions behind closed doors, they said.

Chattin said it was necessary to discuss property acquisition privately, using the new Twins stadium as an example. When you negotiate purchases in the media or publicly, the price can double or triple, he said.

"It's really quite simple. More involvement would have driven up the price, and that's not to our advantage," he said.

When asked what would happen if the Legislature in 2008 does not include Bemidji's events center in the bonding bill, Felix said the city would likely continue forward with plans for the parks and trails. Perhaps it would consider partnering with a developer to build an events or convention center without BSU's involvement, he said.

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