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Events center proposed to be located along Lake Bemidji's south shore

A relocation to the south shore of Lake Bemidji has resurrected the events center project.

Mayor Richard Lehmann announced Wednesday that the city of Bemidji has made an offer to purchase nearly 130 acres of land from ShoreQuest owner John Zacher and neighboring landowners in order to locate the events center on the south shore of Lake Bemidji.

Negotiation are continuing, so the price of the offer is not public, Lehmann said.

Officials stressed that the project would have died had a new location not been chosen.

"If the City Council didn't make this decision, (the proposal) was stalled," said Rep. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji.

Lehmann made the announcement during a press conference at City Hall, in which Council Chambers were filled to capacity. Spectators spilled into the hallway.

"The City Council, Bemidji State University, Headwaters Regional Development Commission, area legislators and others have come together and agreed upon a plan to move this project forward," Lehmann said.

Standing behind Lehmann in a demonstration of support were Moe; City Councilors Barb Meuers, Ron Johnson, Jerry Downs and Nancy Erickson; HRDC Executive Director Cliff Tweedale; Bill Maki, BSU's vice president of finance and administration; and Rob Bollinger, BSU's executive director for university advancement.

Following the official announcement, Tweedale said HRDC intends to work with the city and BSU toward the realization of events center plans.

"There are a lot of ways to judge public policy and strategy," he said. "One of those ways is whether or not (a project) will actually get done."

The HRDC was convinced that continuing forward with a downtown-located events center would have killed the project, he said.

Councilor Nancy Erickson's vote was swayed by the decision.

"I have always thought this project belongs on the south shore," she said. "I have not supported it on the original site."

Erickson said she advocated for the south shore location from the beginning, but some councilors thought the downtown site would better spur growth.

Her main issues with the downtown location were centered around traffic and traffic flow, Erickson said. Additionally, she was concerned with how a large events center complex would impact the downtown's small-town feel, she said.

"Sometimes, you can't dig your heels in on everything," she said, explaining previous votes in support of the downtown location.

ShoreQuest's final plat for a portion of the property had divided about 74 acres into 42 commercial parcels and three outlots. However, the final plat was not to be recorded until today, Nov. 1.

A south shore-located events center could spur a city development similar to Canal Park in Duluth, Minn., Zacher said. Canal Park is a business district that features the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, restaurants, shops and hotels. It is situated along the shore of Lake Superior.

"I don't think there is a doubt that this is a good use of the property," Zacher said.

He confirmed that the city of Bemidji had made an offer, but he did not know how long it would be until negotiations had finished.

During his announcement, Lehmann said the city will document what the site savings will be in moving the events center to the south shore and what the potential for gain is from the sale of land.

He detailed a plan that included the following:

E Maximum value will be squeezed out of events center buildings.

E A framework of a lease agreement will be aggressively negotiated with BSU - and outside assistance, if needed, will be hired to facilitate this process.

E Outside funding and partners will be sought to complete as much of the complex as possible.

E A proactive public engagement strategy will be utilized.

Another main reason for the potential move is that the phased approach that had been discussed for a downtown site may not be necessary on the south shore. It had been proposed that the events center/hockey arena would be constructed first and the city would add on a convention center and a second sheet of ice.

However, Lehmann said Wednesday that the phased plan may no longer be necessary.

"This offers us the opportunity to do it all at one time, if we can partner right," he said.

A hotel was repeatedly mentioned as an option for the site, but the city does not have a contract with a hotel at this time, he explained.

The City Council is considering a $50 million facility. One-half of the funding for the project would come from the city's half-cent sales tax, if extended by the Legislature. The remaining $25 million would include the $3 million already received from the state and an additional $22 in bonding dollars, if approved by the Legislature. BSU hockey is proposed to be the anchor tenant of the facility.

BSU officials were asked during the press conference whether university students had been polled about the potential location of a new arena.

Maki said no official poll had been taken.

"In general, students want a better venue for Division I hockey," he said.