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Meeting discusses facilities needs for Bemidji area youth

Eric Kaiser, a consultant with Northern Minnesota Solutions, leads a public meeting Tuesday night at Bemidji High School during which the public was invited to weigh in on priorities for youth facilities. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — Perhaps the conversation should be less focused on recreation facilities and more so on making sure the kids can get there.

“Transportation is a recurring issue, whether it’s school-provided transportation or public transportation,” said Carol St. John, speaking a public meeting Tuesday evening. “Our students come from such a very wide area and there are students who can’t necessarily participate in things because they simply can’t stay after school ... because they have no transportation available for them (to get home).”

St. John was one of a dozen or so community members who took part in a public meeting to discuss facilities needs for Bemidji area youth. In all, about 30 people were in attendance.

Through an hourlong session during which they discussed district strengths, weaknesses and future goals, participants ultimately ranked their facilities priorities.

Topping the list was a YMCA for indoor wellness. Coming in second was additional elementary space, and third was transportation. Smaller class sizes came in fourth.

Other top priorities included better coordination in scheduling the use of district facilities with area organizations; an indoor recreation facility that could provide indoor space for sports such as tennis, track and soccer; and development of a year-round school calendar.

“We’re starting the dialogue, we’re starting to gather data,” said Eric Kaiser, one of two consultants who led the meeting. “The (school) board will be looking at this, they’ll be asking more questions, will dig more into these. This is just the first time around, to get information, trying to get some ideas on what is the pulse of the community.”

The meeting, held at Bemidji High School, was one of several “ideation” sessions taking place throughout the community to solicit input and ideas on the recreational facilities needs facing Bemidji Area Schools and area youth.

“We thought it would be wise to ask a lot of people what they thought we needed to do in Bemidji, and ask our employees, ask our students, ask our parents, ask our community members,” said Jim Hess, district superintendent, “and then, from those different sources of information, we would then start to gather that information and draw some conclusions.”

The district, with financial backing from the George W. Neilson Foundation, has hired Northern Minnesota Solutions to develop a master facilities plan for recreation space. Consultants already have led about 10 planning sessions, having met with groups ranging from community leaders to middle-schoolers to high-schoolers to district leaders. Approximately another 10 such sessions are planned.

“This is definitely a community effort, it’s not just the school board,” said Carol L. Johnson, school board chairwoman. “Eventually we’ll have to make some decisions but we are definitely looking for our community people to help us and express what they feel are the needs of our community.”

Tuesday’s participants encouraged the board to consider improvements that will benefit all students throughout the area, including those who may not be students within Bemidji Area Schools.

Jack Judkins, with the Bemidji Community Food Shelf, suggested the district considering year-round schooling to better serve all students, including those who live in poverty, and St. John piggy-backed on that, pointing out a year-round food program should also be considered.

All participants were encouraged to answer, at the end of the session, one last question: Regardless of what we do, what must we do to be successful?

“Think of the community,” said Kevin Schussman.

“Think longe-range,” said Maryhelen Chadwick.

“Adapt to our particular ecological world, which is namely a long winter and a long spring,” said Charles Fredrikson.

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