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Supporters speak: Business community to advocate for Bemidji events center

Not a single hand went up when Mike Smith asked for a display from those in the business community who were opposed to the Bemidji events center.

And when he asked who was in favor of the project, every person raised a hand.

Smith, the president of the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, led a meeting for the business community Wednesday night to address the proposed events center.

The meeting was held to galvanize support for the project.

"I just felt that we as a business community need to weigh in on this," Smith said.

He stressed that the community voted in favor of the project. Whether it was a narrow margin or a landslide victory, city residents voted for an events center, Smith said, noting that more people voted for the events center than they did for Mayor Richard Lehmann.

About 50 people attended the meeting, and Smith challenged them to consider Bemidji's future in 10, 20 or 30 years.

"I think this project is in real serious trouble," Smith said.

The Bemidji City Council held a work session last Wednesday to meet with Bemidji State University President Jon Quistgaard regarding BSU's commitment to the project. Following that discussion, the Headwaters Regional Development Commission, the project coordinator, attempted to propose some methods for moving forward, but the council meeting was abruptly adjourned.

The following day the HRDC e-mailed City Manager John Chattin and Lehmann to announce its decision to terminate its contract on the events center. HRDC's Dave Hengel, who attended Wednesday's meeting, said the HRDC did not have the trust of the full council.

It will be the first time in 33 years that the HRDC will have terminated a contract, he said.

Smith said the events center project is following a similar path to previous failed projects, including plans with the former high school property and a downtown parking ramp.

"We're burning up leadership in this community with projects that don't go anywhere," he said.

The tone of the two-hour meeting Wednesday night shifted about halfway through when City Councilor Jerry Downs urged the group to not cast blame.

"Let's not point fingers," he said. "Let's work together."

Downs, who was the only councilor to attend the meeting, advocated for the business community's support on the project and urged those in attendance to work toward changing the perception of the events center project.

"I just don't want this to become a negative thing," he said, explaining that he contacted HRDC Executive Director Cliff Tweedale and asked him to reconsider his plans to terminate the contract.

A letter to the City Council that previously was considered by the group included requests for officials' due diligence, the hiring of a consultant who could address operations and maintenance and mediate the lease negotiations between BSU and the city, and to secure a value engineer, which is someone who would consider ways to get more building for $50 million.

Downs said the council recently named three city councilors to begin meeting with BSU regarding a lease, including himself, Lehmann and Councilor Nancy Erickson. He advocated for a consultant/mediator, but said it might be too late to bring in another firm to act as a value engineer.

The City Council has supported a $50 million events center that would house BSU hockey as the anchor tenant. One-half of the funding would come from the half-cent sales and the other half would come from the Legislature, if approved.

The work of Leo A. Daley, the firm leading the design of the project, was repeatedly mentioned during Wednesday's meeting. Leo A. Daley originally presented plans for a three-component project that would have an events center/arena, a second sheet of ice and a convention center. It was estimated to cost $76 million.

When the City Council voted to limit costs to $50 million, Leo A. Daley simply cut the second sheet of ice and the convention center and proposed that the entire facility be constructed in three phases, Downs said.

Hengel said a value engineer could be hired to review the work done by Leo A. Daley and identity areas where funds could be saved, which would result in getting more building for $50 million.

"Even with a value engineer, it's going to be difficult to do this project with what we have," Downs said.

If the City Council knew then what it knew now, it probably would not have voted to cap costs at $50 million, he said.

When asked if the council would reconsider its funding cap if presented with more information, Downs said, "I think so."

The City Council next meets at 7 p.m. Monday for a regular council meeting. Those in attendance decided to have numerous business men and women present. But, unlike last week's meeting when supporters filled the room but did not speak, they plan to be asked to be placed on the meeting's agenda.

The group also decided to begin writing letters to the editor and meeting personally with councilors to let them know they support the project.

The Chamber of Commerce also is expected to soon release information on how the events center would positively impact the community's economy.

Hockey update

Former BSU hockey coach Bob Peters updated the group about the men's hockey team's efforts toward meeting Quistgaard's two goals.

The team was asked by Quistgaard to raise $500,000 a year for five years, or $2.5 million, to ensure that financial viability of the program. Additionally, he wanted the team to continue to pursue admittance into the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

Peters said the team is making progress on both.

WCHA and BSU officials recently spoke about the university's plans, he said.

The WCHA had a few concerns, including the university's commitment to its program, whether the team would have a new facility, and whether the team would be competitive.

Peters said the first two challenges are now being addressed - and it has already met the third.

"There is a great deal of support coming from the WCHA," Peters said. "They do not want to see a team from the great state of Minnesota go down."