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City to test the public opinion waters on south shore beach project with survey

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BEMIDJI -- The Bemidji City Council wants to finally deliver on a promise it made four years ago to replace Nymore Beach on Lake Bemidji's south shore -- but it isn't sure voters can stomach the tax increases that may come with the delivery. To find out what their constituents want, the city plans a public survey to add clarity following months of deliberations on how best to replace the beach.

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In 2009, the city sold the land for Nymore Beach for $650,000 to Edgewater Group, the company developing the adjacent Hilton DoubleTree Hotel, on the condition it stay open to the public through the summer of 2014. The plan was to create a new public swimming beach slightly to the east by cleaning up an area where wood fragments had been dumped into the water by industrial concerns decades before.

In July, analysts said cleaning up the decomposing wood chips in the water and contaminated areas in the soil on shore would cost almost $1.2 million -- which gave the city some sticker shock. Even after they found out about the high cost, city councilors still felt they had made a promise to the public at the time they sold Nymore that Bemidji would get a replacement beach, and that promise needs to be fulfilled.

"We promised the public before doing this and before knowing what the chips were going to cost," Councilor Roger Hellquist said in July.

On Tuesday, the Council discussed a range of project outlines for the south shore beach project compiled by Marcia Larson, Parks and Recreation director, in tandem with Minneapolis-based engineering firm WSB & Associates. Larson said the latest estimate for cleanup costs for the water and shore is about $1.4 million. The higher-end development options include cleanup for the water surrounding the shore and lower-end ones merely clean up the shore. Potential property tax levy increases range from 7 percent for the highest-cost project to 2.7 percent for the lowest-cost project.

The "master plan," or most elaborate project, would cost about $3.5 million. It includes not just cleaning up the the lakeshore and surrounding water but also renovating the nearby warming house and putting in a sand beach area with a walkway. The master plan also includes installing a splash pad with water fixtures for kids, seasonal shade umbrellas on the beach and a stone maze for people to walk through.

The lowest-cost project has an estimated price tag of $1.7 million. Although this option doesn't clean up the water, it still involves cleaning the shore. Amenities include a splash pad, sand play area, and a raised area that will serve as audience seating for events at the park.

The council also discussed potential solutions to the multi-million dollar question of funding the cleanup and development.

Councilor Reed Olson suggested a half- percent sales tax increase, which he said would spread out the tax burden more than relying on a property tax levy would.

"I know there's problems with it ... but I think that we should really consider increasing our sales tax by a half a percent," he said. "It spreads out the burden across the region and I think it'll (leave) the home owners and property owners in a much better place."

Mayor Rita Albrecht said she was for seeking out other funding options like grants to try to lessen the potential tax impact. Larson said after the meeting the cleanup/development would be a good entry for possible Legacy Amendment grant funding from the state, but cautioned actually getting a grant wasn't easy.

"I think the south shore park would be a great match for Legacy, but it is highly competitive," she said.

City Manager John Chattin said before the meeting most of the development choices available to city in this case would likely require voter approval to get funded.

"The different financing options, most of them require a voter referendum to obtain the dollars necessary to do the improvements," he said.

Although they didn't pick a development option or funding method they liked best, the council did vote in support of a survey to gauge public opinion on the matter. The survey will come out of the Parks and Recreation budget, so Larson will work to iron out the details and come back with survey questions designed by a third party for the council to approve.

Larson said the priority is to take care of renovations to Paul Bunyan Park/Library Park in downtown Bemidji first and then go ahead with the south shore project. If the south shore cleanup goes through, it would likely take place in 2014, and construction on the park the following year, she said.

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