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Bemidji events center gets boost from governor

Funding to start planning a regional events center will be included in Gov. Tim Pawlenty's state building projects bonding bill, he said Friday.

The announcement came at the end of his address to a luncheon crowd at Northwest Technical College-Bemidji, followed by an extended round of applause from the 80 attendees.

"We're going to put the state support for the regional events center in the bonding bill that we're going to announce on Jan. 17," the Republican governor said.

"The city has asked us to help them with the pre-design and the design of this facility," Pawlenty said, a $3 million figure to plan and design the $35 million events center.

A key anchor of the facility will be Bemidji State University's NCAA Division I men's and women's ice hockey program, as BSU has sought for years to replace an aging, 40-year-old John Glas Fieldhouse.

Under the proposal, the city would seek construction funds in state bonding in the 2008 session, with a partnership calling for $14 million in state bonding and the rest from other sources.

The primary option is to ask Bemidji voters to extend the halfcent city sales tax -- which took effect Sunday -- after it has raised the $9.826 million for parks and trails improvements that it was dedicated to doing according to a 2002 city referendum, which will take five or six years.

The Republican-led House approved a 2004 bonding bill which included $18 million for a new BSU hockey arena, but the DFL-held Senate failed to pass a state bonding bill. After the 2004 election, and the GOP hold on the House narrowed, a new House bonding bill in 2005 failed to include most of the Bemidji area projects the previous bill carried.

Behind the effort of "Bemidji Leads!," a group of community "stewards," a regional events center emerged as one of 17 destiny drivers that they say are needed to bring Bemidji to the next level and ensure its success as a regional center.

"There are a lot of different people who will come in and argue about the economic wisdom of this or that aspect of it," Pawlenty said, "but in the end, you have to have some amenities in communities so a robust mix of people can say ... it's a fun, interesting, enriching place to live."

Pawlenty, along with House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, got a briefing on "Bemidji Leads!" and its vision for the community from Jim Bensen, the group's chairman, and Dave Hengel, the Headwaters Regional Development Commission staffer to "Bemidji Leads!"

"We are anxious to be part of this exciting vision for the future," Pawlenty said. "I have great confidence in what I've heard today."

Sviggum said he also supports the regional events center, and will push for its inclusion in the eventual House bonding bill. "I can pretty well assure you that in the House they're be some significant language, dollars, in there to help on the House side for the events center."

In fact, Sviggum quipped that if he "had my druthers," he would make as part of the bill a provision naming the ice rink in the events center "Coach Peters' Ice Sheet," recognizing long-time BSU hockey force coach R.H. "Bob" Peters.

The events center, which would be located in the south end of the downtown near the Beltrami County History Center, would feature a main arena seating 3,500 for hockey and 4,500 for concerts and fine arts events, an ice practice sheet and a convention center with space for a large ballroom and breakout meeting rooms.

"I was cautiously optimistic that he was going to include it in his bill," Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann said in an interview, "but I didn't know he was going to announce it (Friday).

"I am very pleased that he did, I'm very pleased that the speaker has said it will also be a part of his package," Lehmann added. "The key thing is the partnership -- the partnership of our community, partnership of our city and the state, to continue to make Bemidji the viable area that it is."

Pawlenty, however, made future state construction funds contingent on Bemidji voters agreeing in a referendum to continue the city sales tax as the city's portion of construction funding.

Lehmann said that vote would probably come in 2008, even though the city sales tax will continue to flow to parks and trails improvements until the mandated amount is collected.

"This is a great day for Bemidji," Rep. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, said later Friday as he and others skated with Pawlenty on the John Glas ice sheet with about 50 youth hockey and figure skating kids. "The governor recognizes that this project is not only regional in nature, but also an asset to the state."

Moe said he was also appreciative of Sviggum's support of the project, which is key to passage in the House.

Pawlenty, in a news conference, said his staff had studied Bemidji's events center proposal at length.

"We came to the conclusion that this area of the state needs a regional events center," he said. "It's not only going to bring events but it's going to bring excitement and fun, and will act as a magnet, we hope, for tourism and activities and a quality of life that will be improved for citizens of this area."

One of the criteria would be a community vote, he added, for additional state funding. "We spent a lot of time on this," Pawlenty said when asked if he'd made up his mind on the spot to announce the project's inclusion in his bonding bill.

Pawlenty's bonding bill will show balance, between rural and metro Minnesota and between regions, he said, "and this is an important and good amenity for this region of the state and we're proud to support it."

"The governor made a pretty strong statement today," Sviggum said later Friday in an interview after he shakily tried skating at The Glas. "This is a very positive statement to have the governor say that he's going to put it in his bonding bill.

"Once it gets in his bonding bill, it has to be either negatively addressed by the House or Senate or it's going to go," Sviggum said. "I think Bemidji and the folks of the northern Minnesota area should take the governor's announcement as being very good, hopeful news that it will become a reality."

Sviggum said he's spoken to House Capital Investment Chairman Dan Dorman, RAlbert Lea, and that "he indicated to me that it's a very decent project, a very good thing that he'd like to do, and I think there's a very good chance that Chairman Dorman will put it in his House bill."

As part of a unified community effort to lobby legislators on Bemidji projects, funding for the events center may now be refocused, Lehmann said. Lobbying for the funding was a top priority for Bemidji Day at the Capitol, set for March 28.

"It will still be part of our Capitol Day because we still have the Senate to work with, and hopefully they will be agreeable to it," the mayor said. "But it probably won't be as big a piece as it was originally intended,"

But Lehmann said "Bemidji Leads!" 17 destiny drivers give plenty of fodder for lobbying issues.

He noted that Friday's lunch included Walker Mayor Bob Wallace and Park Rapids Mayor Ted Godfrey, and that a partnership is needed to strengthen the entire region.

"The big growth in the state is coming in the lakes region -- Bemidji, Park Rapids and Walker tend to be recipients of that big growth," Lehmann said. "We need to work together and be part of it together. ... Bemidji is the largest community so we end up getting the most focus, but these other communities are as viable and as much needed to us as we are to the metro area."