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Events center supporters cheer $20 million in bonding funds

The celebration began moments after Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed the bonding bill.

"This is a great day for Bemidji," said Bemidji City Councilor Ron Johnson. "This is a great thing for the city of Bemidji and Bemidji State University."

While trimming more than $200 million from the Legislature's bonding bill, Pawlenty kept in place $20 million for Bemidji's events center. The bonding dollars will be paired with funds raised through a 30-year extension of the city's half-cent sales tax, which is projected to raise $47 million.

"This is a very, very positive day for the future of the university and our Division I hockey program," said BSU President Jon Quistgaard.

The events center will consist of both a convention center and an events center, which will double as a home hockey arena for the BSU hockey program.

"What this points out, in particular to the regional events center, is what can happen when the community gets mobilized and comes together," Quistgaard said.

A mix of BSU students, city and school officials and Bemidji businessmen and women frequented the State Capitol in the past few weeks to show their support for local projects including the events center.

"The community came together and the governor saw that," Mayor Richard Lehmann said.

While applauding all those who lobbied in person and sent e-mails and letters to legislators, supporters particularly expressed their appreciation of Rep. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, and Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji.

"If it wasn't for the work of Frank and Mary, we wouldn't be having the same conversation right now," Quistgaard said.

Anne Sand, who has coordinated the events center lobby effort, said supporters have been "holding their breath" since Pawlenty took control of the bonding bill on Friday.

"The community has worked so hard on this," said Sand, who credited the success of the project's financing to supporters who have fought on behalf of the facility.

She specifically recognized the work of Moe and Olson; Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, and Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul; the Bemidji City Council, BSU and Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce. Additionally, Sand said there were many backers behind the scenes, such as those who wrote letters and e-mail and made phone calls to legislators.

"An awful lot of people have worked awfully hard on this," said City Manager John Chattin, who acknowledged the work of both city staff and local supporters.

Both Lehmann and Johnson said they were pretty optimistic about the events center's ability to secure funding this session, although Johnson said he did have some concerns that if the bonding bill was whittled to $825, that it would be harder to obtain funding.

But, Johnson noted, Pawlenty earlier this year approved the sales-tax extension for Bemidji. He probably would not have done so if he planned to reject bonding dollars for the project, Johnson said.

Even if the city not received funding from the Legislature, the city would still "be OK" and would have been able to construct some type of project along the south shore of Lake Bemidji, Johnson said.

But, BSU hockey wouldn't have been so fortunate, he added.

"BSU's whole future was riding on this thing," Johnson said, "and what's good for the college is good for Bemidji."

So now that funding for the facility has been secured, what changes from a planning perspective for the events center? According to Chattin, nothing.

The council already has been planning for a project that would include both a convention center and events center that would host BSU hockey games, he explained.

"If we hadn't gotten (the funding), then we would have changed direction," Chattin said. "Now we know that we're heading in the right direction."