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Council digests feedback: Both sides of events center debate presented during council meeting

In the smorgasbord of items before the Bemidji City Council, the events center may be the main course, but it's not the only dish, Mayor Richard Lehmann said Monday.

"We have a lot on our plate," he said.

The council chambers at Bemidji City Hall were nearly at capacity during Monday's council meeting, during which two people addressed the council.

Michael Beard with J.C. Penney in the Paul Bunyan Mall addressed the council on behalf of the city's business community; resident Howard Baxter then presented a petition with signatures from people opposed to the project.

Beard presented a letter to the City Council in which members of the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce asked councilors to perform their "due diligence" toward moving forward with the events center.

In the last five days more than 90 signatures were garnered from business people who support the events center, Beard said.

The letter, which was formulated during a meeting with the business community last week, encouraged the council to take action on the following:

E Continue to proceed toward an extension of the half-cent sales tax and continue to pursue an agreement between the city and Bemidji State University.

E Continue the city's relationship with the Headwaters Regional Development Commission and enable the HRDC to do its job as project coordinator.

E Ask the architects to take a "value engineer" approach to the project and challenge them to see what can be done with $50 million.

E Meet the Dec. 15 deadline to have a finalized proposal.

The business community understands that the project is complex and is "ready and willing" any way it can, Beard said.

"We realize the difficulty of the task before you," he said.

Conversely, Baxter presented 32 signatures from people opposed to the events center.

Baxter, who lives at 1312 Minnesota Ave. N.W., said he went out and spoke with longtime residents of the city.

"In two hours, I got 32 names of people more than happy to sign (a petition) against the events center," he said.

One person was in favor of the events center, five people were undecided and three people didn't know anything about the project, Baxter said.

"The majority of people do not want the events center," he said.

Addressing the audience of about 70 spectators and those watching the meeting at home, Lehmann said the City Council has not made a final determination on the project.

"This isn't an issue that's been put to rest by any of us on the council," he said.

Referencing Monday's agenda, he said the events center may be the topic making headlines and prompting debate, but it is not the only item that council has to address.

Councilor Barb Meuers said she appreciated hearing comments and feedback from the community regarding the events center. While most of the remarks have been polite, some of them came with "threats" or people saying they would not vote for her in the future, Meuers said.

"There hasn't been very many, but there have been a few," she said.

Information was passed out at Monday night's council meeting that highlighted the actions taken by the City Council since Sept. 20, 2005, in regards to the events center.

"I know it's been a rocky, bumpy road, but we're doing the best we can," said Councilor Jerry Downs, adding that he appreciated hearing support from the business community.

The City Council still has work to do as it attempts to outline a lease agreement with BSU, he said.

Councilor Nancy Erickson said the council has taken 25 actions on the events center since Sept. 20, 2005.

That number refutes a recent comment she heard about the Bemidji City Council "dragging its feet," Erickson said.

"I find that quite disturbing," she said.

Councilor Ron Johnson also referenced the list of events center milestones that have been made since September 2005, noting that the council repeatedly listed having a regional events center atop its list of goals during retreats.

"Having a vision and idea about where you want to go - that's the easy part," he said.

Johnson said he came from a creative background where he takes an idea and makes it a reality.

"It's not the easy part, but it's the fulfilling part," he said.

The City Council adjourned and reconvened as the Bemidji Economic Development Authority, meeting in closed session to discuss possible real-estate purchase negotiations. The BEDA adjourned and the City Council reconvened without announcing the purpose of the closed session.