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Business community discusses potential of a south shore events center

A lot can change in two weeks.

The Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce two weeks ago held a meeting in which the business community expressed unanimous support of the proposed events center.

During a follow-up meeting on Wednesday, that support was questionable.

So what changed?

The council now is reportedly considering relocating the events center project from downtown to the south shore of Lake Bemidji, according to Chamber of Commerce President Mike Smith.

The City Council has met twice since Oct. 15 in closed sessions to discuss the potential purchase of land. City Attorney Al Felix on Monday said that night's closed-door meeting was held to discuss the potential acquisition of part or all of the land on the south shore of Lake Bemidji.

On Wednesday, Smith presented this question to the business community: Where would that leave the downtown?

The Chamber ultimately decided to invite Felix and City Manager John Chattin to attend a future meeting - once information becomes public --and present specific numbers that prove why moving the events center to the south shore is the correct decision.

Also, business leaders expressed support for the creation of a coalition - to be composed of Chamber, Downtown Development Authority and Bemidji Leads members - that would seek answers to specific questions. Representatives from the Headwaters Regional Development Commission would also be invited to attend.

The DDA released a statement on Wednesday that said, "Unless the Downtown Development Authority can be persuaded of the logic of the proposed change in location, we remain very skeptical of this proposal and cannot support the relocation of the Event Center to the south shore area."

The questions to which the Chamber is seeking answers are similar to those posed to the city in the DDA's statement:

E What are the actual savings in the proposed relocation?

E Are infrastructure costs considered equally in both locations?

E A much greater share of the acreage in the south shore area will need to be devoted to parking since there is no prospect for both existing parking lots and on-street parking. Have the environmental and construction costs been factored in for that?

E If the south shore area is allowed to develop privately, there will be considerable property tax revenue generated from that land. Has the loss of that revenue been considered?

E Will the area around the event center in the south shore area be allowed to develop as an entertainment and retail district competitive to downtown Bemidji?

No one said he or she would completely pull their support from the project if the events center is moved. However, Smith emphatically said the downtown was being neglected. Downtown revitalization was listed among many organizations' concerns, including Bemidji Leads, the DDA and the Chamber, he said.

"Everyone is talking about downtown except the city," he said.

If the events center will be proposed to be constructed on the south shore, Smith said the city should explain its decision.

"They're going to have to make and build a case that it's got to be at the south shore," he said.

Kathy Guess said she was a part of a group that previously tried to get the council to purchase the south shore property. At the time, the council was not interested, she said. She asked what information was being presented to councilors now that is changing their position.

Smith said the city long has been interested in purchasing land for a park, and the Department of Natural Resources wants to purchase some parcels to extend the Paul Bunyan Trail. Beyond that, Smith said the city has not released information that explains its change in position.

Gary Johnson, who led the meeting along with Smith, told the group that recent displays of support from the business community prove it can make a difference when it comes together.

"The ship was headed for a big collision," Johnson said, "but I think we turned it a little bit."

Tim Hins, a member of Bemidji Leads and the city task force charged with considering potential sites for the events center, said the City Council voted unanimously in favor of the downtown location in September 2005.

The task force considered 40 possible sites, taking into account many factors such as land prices and entry and exit points.

"Everything pointed to the old railroad corridor," he said.

The south shore was considered, but it finished at No. 3 on the task force's list behind the downtown location and the old Bemidji High School site, Hines said.

"I'd be very disappointed if we went to the south shore," he said.

Pat Donnay, president of the DDA, said downtown businesses have questions about the potential of a south shore-located events center - but also are not in favor of abandoning the project.

"The last thing the DDA wants to do is kill the events center," he said, "But at the same time, we feel like we've got a lot at stake."