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New home sited for Bemidji Community Arts Center

BEMIDJI - The Bemidji Community Arts Center is planning a move across the street.

The BCAC, now located in the historic Carnegie library, has announced its intentions to move into the Lakeside Business Center, the former site of Lakeside Lueken's Grocery.

"It has the ability to be so flexible for some of the spaces that we need," said Lori Forshee-Donnay, the executive director of the BCAC.

The 102-year-old Carnegie has been a good home for the BCAC, but the organization wants a site with more space and better accessibility, Forshee-Donnay said.

In June, the BCAC hosted an art show for a woman who could not attend because she could not access the Carnegie while in her wheelchair.

"She couldn't get in to see her own work," Forshee-Donnay said.

The situation is not unusual, she noted. Several artists and potential visitors are not able to get into the Carnegie because it is not handicap-accessible.

The BCAC moved into the Carnegie in the early 1980s.

"It has been a really great home for us," said Forshee-Donnay, noting that the site served as the early home for the Headwaters School of Music & the Arts and Loonfeather Press. "It has been a great incubator for nonprofits."

The BCAC in 2009 was named one 17 recipients of the ArtsLab capacity-building grant. ArtsLab, a collaboration of multiple foundations, offered financial grants and extensive operational training.

Forshee-Donnay said the three-year project included customized training and intense focus groups as the BCAC set out to find out what the community wants from the BCAC.

"We really were able to pinpoint what our niche is within the arts community," she said.

As a result of that work, the BCAC now plans to add to its existing arts entertainment and education by increasing programming offerings.

The lakeside Business Center site, unlike the Carnegie, would be able to host classrooms for that.

"That's huge, and it's something people have really been asking for," Forshee-Donnay said. "We found during this process that we needed a larger home."

Meanwhile, the future of the Carnegie itself has been in doubt. The Bemidji City Council voted twice in seven months to plan for a future Library Park that would not include the Carnegie.

But even as the council later reversed that decision, voting to instead allow supporters time to raise funds to renovate the building, the BCAC knew it still would need a new home.

"In the end, the facility still doesn't fit our needs," Forshee-Donnay said. "It isn't big enough."

In searching for a new home - with the help of a Twin Cities-based organization that specializes in arts space - the BCAC knew there were a few must-haves, including that the site had to remain downtown and it had to be accessible.

"We looked at properties ... that would help not only support our current programming that is busting at the seams but also that could support the future growth that people have been asking for," Forshee-Donnay said.

The Lakeside Business Center is a perfect fit, she concluded. The Carnegie offers the BCAC about 4,000 square feet while the new site covers 10,000 square feet.

The Lakeside Business Center has plentiful parking in a safe environment, said Forshee-Donnay, noting that there have been more than a few visitors - particularly those involving seniors and student groups - who didn't feel safe walking right along a very busy Highway 197 to access the Carnegie's main entrance.

The BCAC currently co-exists in the Carnegie with the Regional 2 Arts Council. Forshee-Donnay said the plan now is to relocate both organizations into the new site.

A press release states that the BCAC is working with a local project manager, real estate agent and the current owners of the property at 505 Bemidji Ave. N. Partners include the Northwest Minnesota Foundation, ArtsLab, Widseth Smith Nolting and RSP Architects and Artspace.

"We're excited about the prospect of having more gallery, classroom, meeting and programming space as a parking area," said BCAC President Lorie Yourd in the release. "We believe the building and its new façade will add to the downtown revitalization now underway."

The BCAC expects to formally announce the move and unveil pictorial plans for the site this fall.

"It's exciting," she said. "The arts community in Bemidji is so vibrant. There's a lot of desire and interest in learning more about the arts."