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Legislators to visit Bemidji, review events center plans

Bemidji is about to have company.

Dave Hengel with the Headwaters Regional Development Commission has been working on coordinating the events center project since the Bemidji City Council signed an agreement with the HRDC on July 16.

Hengel said dates have been set for visits from the House and Senate investment committees, which next year will review the city's bonding request for funding toward a multiuse events center that would feature Bemidji State University hockey as the anchor tenant and have about 10,000 square feet of events center space.

The City Council has voted in support of a $50 million facility. One-half of the funding for the project would come from the half-cent sales tax. If approved by the Legislature, the remaining $25 million would come from the state.

Representatives from the Capital Investment Finance committee in the House of Representatives will visit Bemidji on Sept. 18. Members of the Senate's Capital Investment Committee will visit the city on Sept. 25.

Both groups are making a trip through northern Minnesota to review bonding requests, Hengel said.

"We'll simply update them with where we're at on the project and its opportunities and challenges," Hengel said, adding that site tours also will be given if the weather is favorable.

But first, Brian J. Schoenborn, who works in St. Cloud with the law firm Leonard, Street and Deinard, will visit Bemidji on Aug. 27. Schoenborn is a managing partner with the law firm and works with businesses in the sports and entertainment, technology and manufacturing industries.

Schoenborn, who is a co-owner of two United States Hockey League teams, is expected to discuss what an events center will bring to the community and the anticipated costs relating to operation and maintenance.

Hengel said Schoenborn will kick off what is planned to be a series of community conversations about the proposed events center. At 8 a.m. Aug. 27, a meeting will be scheduled for businesses, and a session for the community will be at noon. A location has not yet been announced.

Wrapping up events center discussion on Aug. 27 will be the City Council work session at 5:30 p.m. The design team is expected to discuss "extremely preliminary" plans for the events center, Hengel said. Schoenborn also is expected to attend the council meeting.

"It's going to be a big day," Hengel said.

While Hengel is handling the bulk of the events center work, Cliff Tweedale, the executive director of the HRDC, also works on the project, keeping the lines of communication open with the City Council.

The City Council is kept in the loop in three ways, Hengel said. First, councilors receive weekly updates on the HRDC's activities concerning events center planning; secondly, HRDC staff will give verbal updates at council meetings; and thirdly, Hengel plans to have monthly one-on-one meetings with council members.

"Operation and maintenance is the No. 1 issue," he said.

BSU negotiations

When HRDC was retained by the City Council to act as the project coordinator, councilors then stressed their hope that HRDC staff could work out an agreement that would have the BSU hockey programs acting as the anchor tenants of the facility.

Hengel said he has had discussions with BSU staff about a potential agreement.

"I made it clear that we need to get to a point of having some understanding that they'll be the anchor tenant and move the facility forward," Hengel said.

Hengel said he expects that BSU will formally state its intentions regarding the events center and Division I hockey before legislators arrive on Sept. 18 and Sept. 25.

"I'm very encouraged. BSU is very open and willing to work hard on their part of the issues," Hengel said. "I really anticipate a healthy, strong partnership with the city and the university."

More work needed

Hengel said he is anticipating a very busy winter.

"Between Oct. 1 and Feb. 1 there is an awful lot of work that has to get done," he said.

Once the Legislature convenes, he said the city will need to have a clear vision of its plans, including a fine-tuned agreement with BSU, a specific plan for operation and maintenance, and a final design plan.

And, nothing is guaranteed. Hengel said legislators are anticipating "a huge bonding bill this year" and the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis will likely apply pressure for infrastructure funding.

Funding options

Hengel said the HRDC will continue to explore any funding sources that may exist.

Last year, 13 area businesses pledged a total of $330,000 throughout five years to fund any operating deficit from the events center. ShoreQuest's John Zacher also said that he would be willing to purchase the naming rights for the facility for $50,000 a year for five years.

Hengel said those options will be explored.

"We're going to seek as many partners as we can in terms of the operation and maintenance and the upfront costs," he said. "We'll seek additional funding wherever we can get it."

Looking ahead

A lot of work still needs to be done, and a lot of questions remain unanswered, Hengel said, but he remains confident.

"I'm way more optimistic now," he said. "The City Council has been clear with us about their concerns, but they also understand they are facing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to jumpstart (the city) as a regional center."