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City Council meets with businesses to discuss revitalization efforts

Everyone was committed to having a vibrant downtown in Bemidji. What was unclear was how to get there - and how much it should cost.

The Bemidji City Council on Tuesday met in a work session with the Downtown Development Authority and the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce to discuss the potential for downtown revitalization.

The bulk of the conversation focused on a previously promised market study for downtown.

The city had committed $25,000 to a market study, but the council put the study on hold during events center conversation, since it was then thought that the facility would be located in the railroad corridor downtown, which likely would have spurred additional development.

But last month the City Council announced its intent to locate the proposed events center on the south shore of Lake Bemidji, and the city voiced its commitment to also revitalizing downtown.

DDA member Jim Ekstrom on Tuesday brought up the market study, urging that the council act quickly.

"We need to get that started immediately," he said.

He also requested that funding for the study be raised from $25,000 to $50,000. A market study, he explained, will examine what downtown Bemidji is, where it is going, what it has to work with and what it can become.

The cost of the study was based on a similar study recently completed in Park Rapids.

Mike Smith, president of the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, said the study was necessary to draw developers' interest.

"If we don't do that, it's going to be very difficult to get a developer to come in," he said.

Mayor Richard Lehmann said the council has committed $25,000 to the study. Had the events center never been discussed, the study would have been done for that amount, he said.

"I don't think the city should have to come up with the extra $25,000," he said.

Bemidji State University once went around and inventoried existing businesses downtown and noted both the strengths and needs of the area, said Councilor Roger Hellquist, explaining that the market study will expand on that work.

"This will be that on steroids," he said.

The market study could take nine months to one year to complete, Smith said. Hellquist voiced support for placing the topic on an upcoming council meeting agenda. Even if the City Council would pay the additional $25,000 for a market study, it could refund the money if additional funds are found through outside sources, he said.

"And the immediacy is what?" Councilor Nancy Erickson said.

Hellquist said the council should not wait until next summer, or possibly later, to begin working toward a plan for downtown.

"This is going to be your bedrock," he said.

Councilor Barb Meuers agreed with Hellquist, stating that the "downtown deserves this."

"The faster we can get going on this, the better," she said.

No decisions were made on the market study. Instead, the council appointed Hellquist and Councilor Onen Markeson, and staff members, to serve on a committee that will meet to discuss the goals of a study, research how much such studies cost, and do other revitalization plans. It is likely that other committee members will consist of DDA, Chamber and "Bemidji Leads!" representatives, although no additional members have yet been named. The Headwaters Regional Development Commission may also be involved.

Rita Albrecht, a former city planner and current HRDC employee, shifted the tone of the meeting as it neared its end.

Both the City Council and business officials agreed that downtown revitalization is a goal for Bemidji, she said. The committee should first look at the potential costs of the study and funding options, she suggested, and the community should focus on what it agrees on.

Those in attendance also agreed that public input should be considered before any strategic plan is developed for downtown.

Ekstrom said the downtown business community has considered three key points for revitalization, which include completion of a market study, consideration of what needs to be done right now, and what will be done for the future.

Other ideas from the business community include:

-- A transportation system from downtown to the south shore of Lake Bemidji.

-- More parking downtown.

-- Tax-increment financing for downtown revitalization.

Jim Benson, a "Bemidji Leads!" steward, thanked the council for its focus on downtown and explained that very few cities of Bemidji's size have such vibrant downtowns.

"It took extra ordinary effort," he said, adding that revitalization would not be easy.

Earlier in the meeting, Lehmann said the downtown has a better chance of seeing revitalization efforts completed now than it did during discussion of a downtown events center.

"The events center still is just a concept," he said. "Nothing is etched in stone on this yet."