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Year in Review: Unsettled year is marked by local events
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news Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Call it the year of unrest.

The Bemidji area was marked by protests, a growing footprint of the nation's largest rural hospital network and the changing landscape of the city's south shore as 2011 came to a close.

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The year started off bumpy when Richard Hanson, president at Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College, announced cuts amid a $5 million budget shortfall for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 academic years.

His recalibration plan sparked protests from faculty, staff and students upset by the elimination of four academic programs - BSU's theater and arts history programs and NTC's massage therapy and environmental landscaping programs - and 18 programs, more than 30 full-time equivalent faculty positions, administrative and non-academic staff positions and two athletic programs.

Hanson said the plan, aimed at reducing the budget by 10 percent after the state found itself with a $6.2 billion budget shortfall, would create new programs and positions, strengthen American Indian studies and promote programs in science, technology, engineering and math.

"We simply have too many majors," Hanson said during a BSU all-campus forum. "We can't afford it."

Sign-carrying protesters voiced disproval at a faculty and staff meeting, and by the end of January, dozens gathered outside Deputy Hall to denounce theater cuts.

The changes serve as a stark contrast to the health care field.

In March, Sanford Health's expansion into the Northland became official with the completion of its merger with North Country Health Services. Sanford promised to invest $70 million in the community throughout the next 10 years in terms of facilities, recruitment and technology, and immediately donated $5 million to the NCHS Foundation, which will remain an independent nonprofit governed by a board separate from Sanford Bemidji's board of directors.

The Sanford health care system, the largest rural not-for-profit of its kind in the nation, further strengthened its foothold in the area, merging with Lake Region Bone & Joint and partnering with Clearwater Health Services in Bagley and Clearbrook. Sanford announced it would purchase many of CHS's assets, lease the hospital for three years, maintain services and employ the staff.

In September, Bemidji nurses approved a contract offer from Sanford Bemidji Hospital, ending nearly six months of contract negotiations that included informational picketing and a strike vote. In addition, the Sanford Bemidji Medical Center announced it would open a new cardiovascular center within two years.

Also this year, the U.S. Census Bureau announced Bemidji topped 13,000 people for the first time, with an official population tally of 13,431.

The U.S. Post Office announced plans to close Bemidji's mail processing center, but maintain its delivery services, sometime this spring in an effort to plug a massive budget deficit.

Minnesota's 20-day government shutdown in July had far-reaching effects, forcing area state workers into unplanned time off and disrupting vacationers in a tourism-rich community.

The city experienced growing pains as its event center, the Sanford Center, completed its first full year of operation. The facility's executive director, Bob LaBarron, resigned in September. A week later, VenuWorks, which manages the city-owned building, said it needed a $194,000 loan to cover payroll. VenuWorks paid the city back and hired Roger Swanson, who came to Bemidji after the Sanford Center's director of sales and marketing resigned, to lead the facility.

Nearby, developments along Lake Bemidji's south shore proved to be dynamic and fluid. Two new hotels - Doubletree and Country Inn & Suites - positioned themselves for construction next year. Two other projects, a Holiday Inn Resort and the proposed Lake Bemidji Lodge, failed to materialize. Several potential new developments remain in the mix for the area, which was branded in February as the Village at South Shore.

Annexation returned to the forefront by year's end, as residents of Bemidji and Northern townships voiced disproval over plans to fold them into city limits. Despite objections, the Bemidji City Council expects to proceed with the issue next week.

Council members also grappled with other issues, voting in September to remove or demolish Carnegie Library, a staple of Library Park in downtown. They also updated rules for rental properties, moved forward with a plan to commission an artist to create a more life-like bronze Chief Bemidji statue and decided against renaming Stoner Avenue, which was given in honor of early community leader Marcus Stoner.

Bemidji and Beltrami County officials also wrestled with changing closing times for bars, with the city remaining at 2 a.m. and county leaders opting to keep bar closing at 1 a.m.

In February, members of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe overwhelming voted to remove Secretary/Treasurer Michael Bongo from office.

The Bemidji School District, bursting at the seams with children in grades K-5, sought voter approval for a new school. The referendum failed by a wide margin, with 67 percent of voters rejecting the proposal Nov. 8.

However, the school's varsity athletics distinguished themselves in the field of play later in the month, with the Lumberjacks football team advancing to the Class 4A state title, where they lost a heartbreaker 17-10.

For those interested in recreation, the Bemidji City Council announced plans to move forward with North Country Park, along 30th Street Northwest, and renovations were finished at Bemidji City Park, 1330 23rd St. NW.

Crime also made headlines this past year.

In January, a Beltrami County jury found Betsy Marie Hanks guilty for the murder of Matthew David Albert, the father of her four sons, before she was sentenced to life in prison.

Ross Zangigabo Littlewolf was arrested and later indicted on first-degree murder for the June 26 death of Kandace Blaine Dunn of Cass Lake, who had been killed by an apparent gunshot wound to her head.

A few days later, Rolland Fred Kruckow of Backus was charged with murdering his brother, Christian, after a fight.

In November, two Redby men, Donald Leigh Clark Jr. and Cruze Anthony White, pleaded guilty to their roles in the 2010 killing of Julian Keith DeMarrias of Redby.

The area also saw the passing of several community supporters. Among those who died in 2011 were county commissioner Jim Heltzer, former BSU president Ted Gillett, developer John Zacher, community activist Dick Lueben, businessman Chet Swedmark, newspaper publisher and Native American activist Bill Lawrence and BSU educator and humanitarian Jack Reynolds. The year also was marked by the death of Sgt. Matthew Harmon, a U.S. Army diesel mechanic from Fosston killed in Afghanistan, and the passing of Jane Russell, the Bemidji-born actress.

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