Work on the Bemidji Regional Event Center officially began Friday as dignitaries and community supporters gathered around a mound of dirt on the south shore of Lake Bemidji.
"This is a pretty momentous occasion - let's make it look good," called out Mayor Richard Lehmann, scooping up a shovel full of dirt and flinging it into the air.
The event, held at the former North Central Door site off of First Street East, was a celebration for all those who pushed to see the BREC become a reality.
"Today marks the accomplishment of many and a commitment of all to make the event center a successful facility and a hub of activity that our community will look to with pride," Lehmann said. "We will commit to making this a facility that ushers in an era of prosperity for Bemidji, Bemidji State University and generations to come."
Lehmann was joined for the groundbreaking by fellow Bemidji City Councilors Kevin Waldhausen, Jerry Downs, Ron Johnson and Greg Negard; Bemidji State University representatives President Jon Quistgaard, Vice President for Finance and Administration Bill Maki, Athletic Director Rick Goeb, head men's hockey coach Tom Serratore, women's hockey coach Steve Sertich, former BSU men's coach R.H. "Bob" Peters, BSU Foundation Executive Director Rob Bollinger, Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs Nancy Erickson and Vice President for Student Development & Enrollment Lisa Erwin.
Also taking part in the official groundbreaking were legislators, including Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji; Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji; Sen. Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud, and Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisolm.
Others receiving shovels were Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry Commission Steve Sviggum, Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce President Lori Paris, Chamber Chairman Mike Beard and former Chamber Chairman Mike Smith.
The BREC, at about 193,000 square feet, will be the anchor of a 140-acre development along the south shore of Lake Bemidji. It is planned to host conferences, conventions and BSU hockey games.
BSU hockey will be the anchor tenant in the facility, which will have 4,000 seats in the arena, including 25 suites and 250 club seats.
BSU hockey "will be a major element in the success of the event center," Lehmann said, "and I believe the events center will be a major element in the continued success of the Bemidji State University Division I hockey program. Go Beavers!"The upcoming Frozen Four appearance by the men's hockey team was mentioned, but the focus was on the BREC itself - and the overall plan for the south shore.
The development includes, in addition to the BREC, 21 acres of commercial development, 11 acres of residential development, 18 acres of city parkland and a link connecting the Paul Bunyan State Trail.
About 200 people attended the groundbreaking and were reminded, by Lehmann, of the history of the south shore.
"The south shore of Lake Bemidji has historically been a hub of activity and has held a place of great prominence for generations of people," Lehmann said. "Native Americans camped on the shores of the lake, fishing, trapping and celebrating life. Rows and rows of cord wood were stacked on this ground during the early 20th Century logging era."
The BREC originally was planned to be located in downtown Bemidji in the railroad corridor. The location changed in 2007 when the City Council decided to purchase land in the south shore, thus accomplishing one of the city's goals to maintain land in that area for park improvements.
"This place we are standing is one piece of a broader development that will expand the city's tax base and provide new parks and trails that will span more than a mile of shoreline," Lehmann said. "An aquatic management area will also be set aside to protect the important fishing resource we have in Lake Bemidji."
The groundbreaking ceremony included a prayer by the Rev. Jim Holthus, the Lutheran Campus Ministry pastor, and a ground blessing by spiritual elder Gordon Headbird. The Cass Lake-Bena High School drum group from Cass Lake also performed two honor songs.
Holthus' prayer acknowledged the controversy surrounding the BREC project. He prayed that the community will now work together.
"Help us to act and live in ways that prove to everyone in our community that this center can unite us instead of divide us," Holthus said, "that our commitment for the poor is not lessened by our commitment for this facility, that our search and request for dollars and funding will continue to include other projects that will benefit all the various members of our community."
His prayer ended, to an eruption of applause, with a dedication and prediction for the BSU men's hockey team:
"And let this be the facility of the world champion BSU Beaver hockey team!"
The ceremony was an opportunity for Lehmann, and the city, to thank all those individuals and groups that worked to make the BREC a reality.
Following the first official digging of the dirt, community members and project supporters were invited to shovel some dirt themselves.