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'A community effort': Events center supporters lobbying for project

As Mayor Richard Lehmann touted the cooperative effort in supporting the events center, a dozen students from Bemidji State University were down in St. Paul lobbying for the project.

Business and community leaders convened Monday morning at the Tourist Information Center to sign a Statement of Commitment for the events center and redevelopment of the south shore of Lake Bemidji.

Signing the Statement of Commitment were representatives from the city, BSU, Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Development Authority, Joint Economic Development Authority, Headwaters Regional Development Commission, "BemidjiLeads!" and VisitBemidji.

"This is proof that the community is moving in the right direction on this," Lehmann said following the signing of the document. "This is a community effort, not just a city of Bemidji effort."

Beltrami County Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks attended as well, but he said he could not sign the document without the approval of the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners.

The statement voices support of the events center and south shore redevelopment, citing the creation of new jobs and economic benefits estimated between $78.5 and $13.1 million annually.

"Benefits include short- and long-term job creation, additional tax revenues, more tourists and visitors to the region, and the opportunity to attract conventions, conferences and other groups in need of large meeting space," the statement reads.

The Statement of Commitment will be sent to the Legislature and Gov. Tim Pawlenty's office, said Anne Sand, who is coordinating the lobbying effort.

The city has asked the Legislature to approve a half-cent sales tax extension to fund the events center facility and to approve $22 million in bonding funds for its construction.

Bemidji is poised to contribute $66 million locally to the south shore redevelopment, which includes the land purchase, events center construction and site improvements.

Lehmann noted in his speech prior to the signing of the Statement of Commitment that the local funds will come from the sales tax, land sales and a partnership with a hotel developer.

"None of these funds will come from local property tax," he said.

The cross-section of local leaders who appeared Monday to show their support was indicative of the variety of people who have been traveling to St. Paul to lobby on behalf of the sales-tax extension and bonding funds, Sand said.

"We're trying to have a broad spectrum of individuals going down (to St. Paul)," she said.

While local stewards were supporting the statement in Bemidji, a contingent of 10 BSU student representatives was coincidentally in St. Paul lobbying on behalf of the students' six-item legislative platform, which includes the events center.

"We made a huge impact today," BSU Student Senate President Cody Nelson said Monday night, while headed back to Bemidji.

The Student Senate had 13 appointments with legislators and handed materials to another 12.

The group coincidentally met with Alice Hausman, the chair of the House Capital Investment Committee, and she particularly was impressed to hear the students' support, Nelson said.

"She was really thrilled," he said. "She said this means a lot."

Lehmann was in St. Paul last week to lobby for events center legislation and said that he will continue to meet with key legislators in the near future.

The sales-tax extension appears to be "pretty safe" and has the support of legislators, Lehmann said.

The bonding dollars, however, are less clear. Pawlenty did not include the events center in his proposed bonding package, and the Legislature is still considering its priorities for legislative funding.

Lehmann said he met with Pawlenty's chief bonding aid to discuss the issues surrounding Pawlenty's exclusion of the project.

"We think we made some major progress there," Lehmann said.

He explained that he is "fairly confident" that Pawlenty would not utilize his line-item veto power to remove funding for the project if it is included and passed in the House of Representatives and Senate.

Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, and Rep. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, also are playing vital roles in advancing the project, Lehmann said. But, they were unable to attend Monday's show of support due to being in session down at the Capitol.

"They each send their best regards and renewed commitment o the work necessary in St. Paul to move the project forward," Lehmann said in his statement.