Timber availability, student financial aid access, banking regulations, veterans' concerns - these were some of the issues Sen. Al Franken addressed during an economic development forum Friday morning.
Representatives from Bemidji, Baudette, Blackduck and Park Rapids gathered in the Beltrami Electric Cooperative community room to hear about Franken's SEED Act -Strengthening Our Economy Through Employment and Development - and raise local issues they want the senator to address.
"Tell me what's going on here in Bemidji and the area," Franken encouraged the 20-plus attendees.
Beltrami County Administrator Tony Murphy commended the federal stimulus package, but he said giving the state authority to administer federal funding cuts the local governments out of the program.
Franken said he agreed that the money should go more directly to the local levels.
Larry Young of the Joint Economic Development Commission Forestry Affairs noted the shortage of wood for processing at plants such as Bemidji Potlatch, which he said had only a four-day supply. He said part of the problem is the inability of the National Forest Service to meet tree-cutting goals because of lack of funding and forestry management personnel. Other reasons the forest management goals are not being met include added bureaucracy that slows response time and litigation by groups that want no trees cut, he said.
The Chippewa National Forest, for example, is at 68 percent of its forestry management goals, he said
"Right now there is more wood falling down in the Chippewa National Forest than is being harvested," Young said.
When Ainsworth closed last year, the area lost 250 jobs and $90 million in revenue, Young said.
"We can't afford to take another $90 million hit on our local economy," he said.
"We should be using our forests; we should be good stewards of our forests. They go hand in hand," Franken said.
Franken also addressed banking concerns.
"I want to get more money to commercial banks, local banks, community banks here on Main Street," he said.
Paul Welle, vice president of First National Bank Bemidji, said the local banks are not the institutions that caused the recession. He asked Franken to protect the local banks from undue additional regulation.
Franken agreed that the Consumer Protection Agency shouldn't treat all banks alike.
Representatives of Bemidji State University, Northwest Technical College and the Bemidji School District brought up educational issues, including simplification of financial aid for college, unfunded mandates and reforming No Child Left Behind.
Franken emphasized his dedication to grants for college financial aid based on need, citing his wife, Franni, and her sisters, who went to college on Pell Grants. He also said early intervention is necessary to prepare children for school and healthy, successful lives.
Jim Bensen, former BSU president and "Bemidji Leads!" member said society needs children tuned into creative thinking rather than test-takers.
Bemidji School Superintendent Jim Hess also said he wants to remove the "punitive" aspects of programs like Adequate Yearly Progress.
"We need to take away some of those sticks and find some carrots," Hess said.