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Councilors debate how to fund beach redevelopment

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BEMIDJI — Like most dilemmas facing city governments, money is the main obstacle standing in the way of redevelopment.

But the south shore project in Bemidji has a couple of twists.

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City councilors say that a promise, whether implicit or explicit, was made to residents that a new beach would be created on the south shore of Lake Bemidji. That, and the fact that the swimming beach may not stay clean once it's cleared of debris and wood chips complicates the project.

"To me it's just a really sticky situation," Councilor Reed Olson said.

A public discussion over the future of the south shore beach has already begun. What city residents want to see at that beach, and if they are willing to pay for it, has yet to be seen.

Finding the money

The Bemidji City Council on Monday discussed how much it would cost to clean up and redevelop the beach area east of the DoubleTree Hotel. The water there is filled with wood chips and other debris left behind by railroads and other industries that have since left.

At a minimum, cleaning the swimming beach and building basic amenities such as a drop-off zone for drivers and walkways to the beach would cost about $2 million. Full redevelopment of the area as outlined in the parks master plan would cost significantly more.

Olson said it's likely that voters would be asked to approve a bonding referendum should the council choose to redevelop and clean the new south shore beach.

"There's no money anywhere else," Olson said.

Originally, developing the beach area was expected to be funded by revenues generated from land sales on the south shore, said city manager John Chattin. He added, however, that original estimates for cleaning up the beach were much lower than the $1.2 million quote the city received from Landmark Environmental LLC last month.

"I think the public didn't understand that the replacement of the beach was going to be additional cost," Councilor Nancy Erickson said.

City councilors agreed to sell the land for the DoubleTree to the Edgewater Group for $650,000 in 2009, with the condition that Nymore Beach remain public for five years. Next summer is the last one the beach will be public, said Rich Siegert, developer of the DoubleTree.

Councilor Ron Johnson, who was on the council at the time of the sale, said there have been plans to develop the beach area long before the land was sold to Edgewater. He said there was no definite timeline set for creating a new beach.

Mayor Rita Albrecht said a bonding referendum to clean and redevelop the beach would be a "last resort."

"Maybe we'll think outside of the box a bit and think of some alternatives to cleaning up a beach," Albrecht said. "I'm not sure if we have to swim in the lake. Maybe there's another alternative for that."

"There is an expectation that the city has made to the community and we need to fulfill that," Albrecht added. "However, we have to be prudent in our redevelopment plans so that it is cost-effective."

Potential alternatives

Even if the swimming area is cleaned up, there's no guarantee wood chips wouldn't float back into the beach. Councilor Roger Hellquist suggested that if they clean up the beach, the city should wait to develop the park until they know the water will stay clean.

Erickson said several people have approached her in recent days about the possibility of some kind of a pool instead of a swimming beach, which she said was an "interesting" proposal. She said that "might be a better investment for the city, so that we don't take the risk of those chips coming back into that swimming area."

"I'd kind of like to investigate that with the public and see whether that would suffice," Erickson said.

On Monday, city councilors directed staff to list scenarios for what could be accomplished at the beach area with different levels of funding. Currently, city staff is moving forward with the process of obtaining permits from various state and federal agencies, with the assumption that the beach cleanup work would begin in fall 2014, said city engineer and public works director Craig Gray.

Instead of moving forward with a bonding referendum Monday, Albrecht suggested holding public meetings to discuss the future of the beach area. Those proposed meetings have yet to be scheduled, she said.

"I think we need to have public meetings, public input," Erickson said. "The public needs to clearly understand that in order to meet that obligation, there will be a cost to them."

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John Hageman
John Hageman covers local business and Grand Forks' legislative delegation. Get more business news at aroundtown.areavoices.com. 
(701) 780-1244
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