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Pioneer Editorial: Norris left his mark in Bemidji jobs

William Norris, one of Minnesota's modern-era innovators in computer technology, died Monday at the age of 95 after a long battle with Parkinson's disease.

Norris will go down in Minnesota history as the founder of Control Data Corp., which he began in 1957 after helping form anoth-er company in 1946 which eventually mer-ged with Sperry Rand Corp. Norris' first company pioneered development of the digital computer, and he later headed Sper-ry's Univac division, which was the top of mainframe computers well into the 1970s.

Norris' Control Data Corp. was no slouch, either, establishing itself by 1960 as building the world's most powerful mainframe computers, growing to be one of Minnesota's largest companies with $5 billion in sales and 60,000 employees.

The reason we highlight Norris' career here is that he was also instrumental in diversifying Bemidji's economy, creating a major manufacturing edge outside of the more natural timber-related manufacturing that we also have.

Control Data Corp. in 1979 announced plans that it would build a manufacturing plant in Bemidji to employ up to 400 people to assemble computer component parts. The new firm would be operated by a Control Data subsidiary, Magnetic Peripher-als Inc., and built by the Bemidji airport.

The road to the plant was named Norris Court by the city, and Norris himself said at the new plant's dedication in 1980 that "there is a pot of gold at the end of Norris Court in the form of jobs and paychecks for Bemidji area people, economic stimulus for local busi-ness and, of course, profits for Control Data."

The dreams came crashing in mid-1985, however, as technological changes and the rise of the personal computer cut into Control Data and its subsidiaries, causing company-wide layoffs and the danger of Bemidji's MPI closure. By year's end, layoffs hit the Bemidji plant heavily and the loss of the plant was imminent.

But Norris would hear none of that and, working with city leaders, found a buyer for the plant and pledged to help the city become even more diversified. MPI became Digigraphic Systems Corp., with fewer employees, but the same mission of making wire harnesses for computers. That firm later become what we have today, Nortech Systems, still employing workers in Bemidji, still making wire and cable assemblies and printed circuit board assemblies for a number of industries.

More importantly, Norris established a Business and Technology Center in Bemidji to serve as a small business incubator, and provided the impetus for the city to find and support new business with the creation of the Joint Economic Development Commis-sion. Norris impressed upon the need for the community to build a seed capital fund for the development and nurturing of new businesses, and the community responded, drawing into partnership a number of public and private sector interests.

The JEDC continues to today to work on helping new businesses locate here, nurturing existing businesses and seeding new ventures in forestry affairs and biotechnology.

Through Bill Norris' foresight in bringing high-paying jobs to rural Minnesota, his work lives on in Bemidji.