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City Council approves downtown study

It took a while, but the Downtown Development Authority will finally get its market study.

The Bemidji City Council on Monday unanimously approved a contract and funding for hiring RDG Planning and Design to prepare a market study and offer master planning services for the historic downtown and south shore redevelopment area.

"I think this is so important for the city for so many reasons," said Councilor Roger Hellquist, who made the motion.

RDG had proposed a not-to-exceed cost of $57,000 for its services, but the city is planning on a $60,000 budget to cover reimbursable expenses.

The DDA will contribute $25,000 from parking funds that were dedicated to a market study in 2006, and the remaining balance will be funded through city funds and grant dollars. The council on Tuesday approved $15,000 in city funds to come from a $106,000 surplus in the Permanent Improvement Fund, and also authorized an application to the Northwest Minnesota Foundation requesting $20,000 in funding.

The DDA has been seeking a market study for downtown since before 2006, said DDA board member Jim Ekstrom.

"It's been a long time coming," he said.

The authorized study, which will focus on downtown and the south shore area, will also include the waterfront area and the former Minnesota Department of Transportation building.

The market study has taken on increased significance since the addition of the south shore and MnDOT building, Ekstrom said.

"We need to plan for development in the future," he said.

The Headwaters Regional Development Commission has been working with the city, DDA and Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce as it considered the proposed study. RDG emerged as that group's unanimous first-choice firm after seven consultants submitted qualifications and two made presentations.

Hellquist, who serves on the DDA as the council representative, noted RDG's work in Park Rapids and Detroit Lakes, saying that RDG will provide an "excellent product" to the city.

Not only does the firm, which has offices in several states including Wisconsin and Iowa, consider development options for the future, but it takes a thorough inventory of existing businesses, he explained. The market study will allow the City Council and DDA to consider what existing gaps may exist in the city limits and what could be added, Hellquist said.

"It's important for the city as a building block for the next 20 years, if not more," he said.

The council's unanimous vote also authorized RDG to begin working on downtown planning immediately.

City Manager John Chattin said RDG was willing to get started even before the grant dollars are secured from the Northwest Minnesota Foundation.

A pre-application has been made and the city has been encouraged to make a full application, but waiting could delay the start of the study at least one month, he said. If the grant is not approved, Chattin will need to approach the City Council again.

"We believe we should be able to obtain (the grant)," he said.

The council was supportive of the market study. The only concern voiced was that the Northwest Minnesota Foundation grant application might be hindered, as another group is seeking grant dollars from the same foundation to look at improving the Lake Bemidji waterfront, which is to be included in the downtown market study.

Councilor Onen Markeson, who like Hellquist was a part of the group that worked with the HRDC, said he believes that the Northwest Minnesota Foundation understands the situation.

"I think they're aware there are two separate things that are related," he said.

The downtown market study will include public meetings, noted Councilor Nancy Erickson.

"We really do want the public's input - this is your property," she said.

Councilor Jerry Downs acted as mayor during the one-hour Tuesday meeting as Mayor Richard Lehmann did not attend. Also absent was Councilor Barb Meuers.