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Council votes to retain HRDC as events center 'project coordinator'

The deal has been inked.

The Bemidji City Council on Monday voted 6-1 to approve an agreement with Headwaters Regional Development Commission authorizing HRDC to be the project coordinator on the events center.

After meeting with the council last Tuesday, HRDC submitted a proposal in which the council would pay up to $48,500 to HRDC for its services.

Dave Hengel, HRDC's director of community leadership and development, and Cliff Tweedale, the executive director, will serve as the co-staff on the project.

After Monday's council meeting, Hengel said he is looking forward to working with the City Council on the events center.

"I see this as the most important issue facing our entire region," he said.

Councilor Roger Hellquist cast the dissenting vote. Hellquist questioned the need to spend $48,500 when, he said, the City Council mainly just needs to know what Bemidji State University's needs are in order to retain BSU hockey as the anchor tenant of the events center - and if the design team can build that facility for $50 million.

Hellquist said, "$50,000 is an awful lot to spend to get to (that) point."

While HRDC said it also would be the lead for public information and public engagement, manage the project team, broker the process and champion the project, Hellquist said he was not sure that city staff could not handle those responsibilities.

Hengel said on Monday that HRDC offered an "actual cost contract," meaning that if the council determines the project is not feasible and terminates it, the city will only be charged for staff time up to that point.

Responding to Hellquist's concerns, Mayor Richard Lehmann echoed a statement from last week, saying he thinks it is time to "let staff take a step back from this a little bit."

City Manager John Chattin said staff will continue to play a role in events center planning.

"To think that staff will not be intimately involved in this moving forward is a false assumption," he said.

Councilor Nancy Erickson said she thought Hellquist "may have a very valid point."

HRDC will "help at a time we really need the extra manpower," said Councilor Ron Johnson.

Even if a potential contract with BSU is the main item on HRDC's agenda, it would help to have an outside negotiator, said Councilor Onen Markeson.

"BSU has certain expectations, and we have certain expectations - and they're not the same, I'm sure of that," he said, adding that having a third-party working on agreement would help negotiations.

Hellquist said the council should consider having HRDC get answers from BSU and then consider having HRDC work on other events center issues.

"Instead of doing this carte blanche," he said.

After listening to councilors debate whether the agreement with BSU is needed before moving further forward, Chattin said that was not an option. The council, he explained, cannot put everything else on hold until negotiations are over.

Legislators will expect to be able to see schematic design plans when they tour the city and review the city's bonding request in the fall, Chattin said.

He said that if the City Council decides to hold up the project until BSU negotiations are finished, the council might as well "write off the 2008 bonding bill."

Erickson said she was frustrated that the city has to deal with a timeline, meet deadlines and keep moving forward when BSU seems to have "no timeline whatsoever."

Johnson reminded the council of what Tweedale said during last week's work session: Planning for the events center is not a "linear process" and some planning is going to have overlap.

He said he believed the City Council "talked this out pretty good" last week - and then called the motion to question.

"We need to get going," he said.

If approved by the state, the money will come from the $3 million allocated to the city by the Legislature in 2006 to help plan and design the project. If the state denies using those funds, the money will come from a revolving fund that also was used to fund the feasibility study done by Wayzata-based Conventions, Sports and Leisure International.

The council now is supporting a $50 million multiuse events center that would feature BSU hockey as its anchor tenant and contain approximately 10,000 square feet of events center space.

The council decided last month against including a convention center and a second sheet of practice ice for BSU hockey in the events center. To include those pieces, the total cost of the project would have likely been at least $60 million.