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Events center cost questioned

The Bemidji City Council debated the cost of the events center Monday as the project lost the support of Nancy Erickson.

Erickson read a statement in which she said the events center was placing her personal integrity and level of public trust in jeopardy.

"The events center project has become a financial nightmare," she said. "The process is tainted and the project cost has skyrocketed."

The cost of the events center is now $91 million even though the council capped the cost of the facility at $50 million, she said.

Councilor Ron Johnson refuted that figure, saying that the events center itself will be built for less than $50 million.

The building was moved to the south shore of Lake Bemidji and will now be part of a redevelopment plan for 130 acres, he said.

"When we moved it out there, it became bigger than an events center," Johnson said.

A $91 million plan has been proposed to fund the redevelopment of the 130-acre south shore redevelopment area, according to council documents.

Construction of the events center is funded in that plan, which also includes costs for land purchases and site improvements.

Both Councilor Jerry Downs and Johnson said the redevelopment plan fulfills three longtime council goals: improvement of the city's trails and parks, construction of a regional events center, and redevelopment of the south shore.

"All are happening in this one project," Johnson said.

Councilor Barb Meuers noted that residents voted in favor of a $35 million events center and the cost has continued to rise. As plans for the project move forward, she said she is going to have a lot of questions about its construction, operation and maintenance costs.

"The really difficult part is starting now," she said.

Mayor Richard Lehmann said the council is "poised and ready" to begin answering those tough questions now that the bonding dollars have been secured.

"The rest of it now will start falling into place," he said.

City Manager John Chattin said he received a draft copy of the operations and maintenance study from Wayzata-based Conventions, Sports and Leisure on Monday and city staff is now reviewing those figures.

A final copy of the report is expected to be available this week, he noted.

"We know we have a lot of work ahead of us," he said. "We believe we can find ways to operate this center without raising taxes."

The issue of the $50 million cap was raised last month by Erickson -- and Meuers last week voted against a potential design of the events center due to concerns about the overall cost.

In her statement, Erickson said the city could opt to construct a $91 million facility.

"The real issue is at what sacrifice to the other future public needs in our community and personal needs of our citizens," she said. "Clearly our resources are not limitless."

But, while Erickson said the costs are of concern to her, she said she was more troubled by the disregard of a representative government.

"Previous actions taken by the council to protect the public from a debt so great as to place an unbearable burden on many of you (the citizens) are being ignored," she said.

More property?

Councilors convened as the Bemidji Economic Development Authority following the regular City Council meeting to consider the possible purchase of three other parcels of land in the south shore area.

City Attorney Al Felix said the three parcels, one of which is owned by Bemidji Area Schools, are among the few left in the area not owned by the city of Bemidji.

The council authorized Chattin to continue negotiating with landowners, Felix said.