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Finding the best future facilities for schools: Bemidji school district schedules a master plan for indoor, outdoor recreational space

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BEMIDJI — A field house. New ballfields. Indoor tennis courts. A trailhead for skiers.

Bemidji Area Schools has been working toward identifying the most pressing needs for indoor and outdoor recreational space for local students.

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“It has become obvious that the school district is a huge partner in indoor and outdoor recreational facilities,” Superintendent Jim Hess said during a Wednesday evening School Board meeting. “We probably carry the lion’s share of the responsibility for providing the space.”

As the district this year reached out to various youth and community groups to gauge their use of existing facilities and discussed their future needs, Hess said it became clear current facilities are not keeping up with demand for practice and competition space.

“It’s just overwhelming how much use there is and it’s growing every year,” he said, noting that the district has been asked to open facilities on Sundays. “We want to do the best that we can for our kids and for our community, and I think that’s what prompts a very thoughtful and complete study.”

The School Board was unanimous in approving a contract with Northern MN Solutions — a partnership of Kraus-Anderson, Larson Engineering, and Johnson Controls — to develop a master facilities plan for recreation space, both indoor and outdoor.

Nine architectural firms responded to the distict’s request for proposals and four were invited to present their proposals to the district’s Facilities Committee, which recommended Northern MN Solutions.

“I really appreciate their emphasis in how they anticipate working with the public and engaging their interest,” said Ann Long Voelkner, a School Board member and member of the committee. “I believe they will provide high quality services at a good value.”

A key partner in the initiative has been the George W. Neilson Foundation, which is funding the study.

“They want to see this done and they want to see it done well,” Hess said.

The board discussed the matter starting in October, when Hess recapped a district meeting with area youth sports organization, asking them to report on their needs and wants for the next 10-20 years.

Responses included a fieldhouse, which could hold year-round practices and competitions; fields for youth football; a competition baseball field for non-varsity teams; replacement sheet ice for Nymore Arena, which was built in 1974 and does not meet ADA requirements; an indoor tennis facility; a trailhead for cross-country skiing; and additional soccer and football fields at the middle school.

“The first part is the study, to know what we need and what we have, and then after that, we start developing timelines and action plans,” Hess said. “(For example), if this is our action, to build X or to create Y, then we develop an action plan to get that accomplished. Some things will be easy. Some things will be more difficult.”

School Board Chairman John Pugleasa said he expects a tiered plan.

“We’re looking at a long-range type of plan so my guess is we’ll end up with something kind of in phases,” he said. “Some things we can do fairly easily and inexpensively. And there may be other things that are large building projects that we need to think about how that fits with other education priorities.”

Hess said one of the strengths of Northern MN Solutions’ application was its expertise in financing.

“The firm had one other advantage: experience in helping to finance construction projects such as this,” he said. “They not only give ideas, but … they also have funding strategies to help districts like us.”

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