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Gov. Pawlenty offers praise for 'Bemidji Leads!'

Bemidji, as a regional center, needs dynamic local leadership that embraces challenges in order to succeed, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Friday.

And, after hearing a pitch about "Bemidji Leads!", the community's group of stewards and the destiny they have laid out for Bemidji, Pawlenty said it exists here.

"Do not underestimate the power, the potent power, of what it means to have positive, dynamic leaders at a community and local level," Pawlenty said at a Northwest Technical College-Bemidji lunch which drew about 80 community leaders.

"One of the strongest correlations between economic development and success at a local level is the skills, ability, persistence and dynamic qualities of the leaders," the Republican governor said. "Having leaders with a positive, hopeful, strategic future-oriented vision in a changing world matters a ton."

Pawlenty said he was "extremely impressed and pleased" that leaders in Bemidji "have seen that, heard it, and taken it seriously."

The governor had a full afternoon in Bemidji, arriving at noon to hear an update on efforts to expand and improve the Bemidji Regional Airport, making visits to two Bemidji manufacturers and touring Bemidji State University's entry in applied engineering and emerging technologies.

He left town about 6 p.m., but not until after donning a BSU hockey jersey and skating for about an hour at John Glas Fieldhouse with about 50 youth hockey and figure skating kids. He signed jerseys while the Bemidji High School band added musical flair.

During the luncheon, Pawlenty, accompanied by House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, got a briefing on "Bemidji Leads!" from its chairman, Jim Bensen, and Dave Hengel, the Headwaters Regional Development Commission staffer assigned to the stewards' group.

After hearing how the community worked to set its destiny, and of the 17 destiny drivers that the community wants to achieve and be graded on, Pawlenty praised the community for its vision.

"This is a fantastic effort and vision for this important regional center in Minnesota and for our state, and for Bemidji," Pawlenty said. "It is spot-on. You're fortunate to have the community leaders and activists and people who are involved civically to be involved in this effort.

"This 17-point checklist, in addition to being bold for the future, is also very clear that it's realistic in being connected to the existing strengths that you have," he said.

Bensen outlined the two-year history of "Bemidji Leads!" and how the community sought to define a destiny for itself. "We're going to create our own future. We asked the community to come together."

The 17 destiny drivers "will help the community define where we're going," Hengel said.

They help bring Bemidji to a future, Hengel said, that will see Bemidji as:

• A healthy community, successfully balancing regional center amenities and small town beauty and character.

• A vibrant economic center recognized for its innovation, creativity and knowledge.

• A social, cultural, recreational and educational magnet.

• An embracing, culturally diverse community.

• A people committed to shared prosperity and longterm community stewardship.

• The star of the north, a national model of community success.

"Education is our foundation," Hengel said, as he listed the 17 destiny drivers for Pawlenty, such as the performance of students in Bemidji will rank in the top five in the state by 2015, that Bemidji will have the lowest incidence of drug and alcohol abuse in the next decade and that BSU and Northwest Tech will have five centers of excellence that will drive the regional economy.

But, Hengel said, the destiny drivers also include having an events center in Bemidji by 2008, having the best technology in the world and planting 10,000 trees a year for 10 years.

"More people are getting involved in civic life than they had before," Hengel said. "We don't want to be an everyday, sleepy town. We're pro-active and boldly moving forward. Bemidji has figured it out."

Pawlenty said he was so moved by how Bemidji is embracing its future, that he didn't give the speech he had intended to give.

Instead, he built upon "Bemidji Leads!" and said that Minnesota must face new challenges which are global in nature, and can't depend on what was successful in the past.

"We're going to get some challenges, and we don't get to pick how they come," he said. "But we do get to pick how to respond."

A high quality of life can't be held anywhere without access to jobs or to a meaningful economic opportunity, he said. "People are not going to stay in portions of a state or nation where they don't have access to a job."

How to grow and maintain jobs needs to be at the top of the list, Pawlenty said. Without that, cities may be able to slow decline but won't be able to stop it or reverse it.

Demographics now in Minnesota is creating a strong metro area and growth-oriented regional centers and then "big chunks of the rest of the state that are being left behind."

Declining enrollment in schools, an aging population, an increased need for social services and lost jobs and tax base are plaguing those areas, Pawlenty said.

"We have (state) programs designed to soften the impacts of negative trends," he said, "but if we're in the business of softening or slowing down negative trends we can all still see what the result is -- you may get there a little more slowly but you still get there."

Leaders need to stabilize and reverse those trends, he said. Positive and dynamic leaders help. Minnesota needs to "ride the waves of change, rather than get swamped by them."

Minnesota leads or nearly leads in the nation in all categories that matter, Pawlenty said. "The model that got us here has been really good ... but we now realize that we live in a world that is changing more profoundly, more rapidly, more dramatically than any time in human history.

"If our strategic plan is to white-knuckle the present or to white-knuckle the past, we're going to fail," Pawlenty said. "We have to add an appetite for change."

That means being competitive, controlling the cost of doing business in the community, being the smartest and the best at innovation to be first in the marketplace, good at attracting research and development, and striving for productivity enhancement.

"We'd better make sure that we have infrastructure in place so that our producers aren't put at relative disadvantage compared to their competitors nationally or internationally," the GOP governor said. "We'd better make sure we have a fairly efficient and effective and productive workforce, so that even though they may be more expensive than their international competition, that they're better."

A really good education system in Minnesota is the key, he said, adding that it is already one of the best but needs finetuning.

While average standard test scores are among the best in the nation, "we have whole groups of our population that aren't anywhere near that average."

Included, he said, are high poverty inner-city areas and American Indian reservations.

"You can't have a successful society and an economy where you know you have to have a post-high school skill or education to be connected to the economy of the future, and have districts or places where 50 percent of the children don't graduate from high school," he said.

A focused and aggressive agenda is needed, he said.

"We're going to bring this state forward and regions forward. Having the human preparation for the skills and the economy of the future is critical," Pawlenty said.

He added that rural Minnesota also needs to retain more of its native sons and daughters, the creative class of the dreamers, the designers, the inventors, the innovators, the artists, the entrepreneurs, the risk takers.

Rural Minnesota needs its share of "the people who are going to give us the next increment of innovation, invention, technology, that will give us comparative advantage for a while," he said.