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HRDC touts success stories

Mary Thompson explains a Headwaters Regional Development housing program while staffer Aaron Chirpich waits to add more insight during the HRDC's annual meeting Thursday night in Bagley. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

BAGLEY -- Helping a family facing foreclosure into a new affordable home counts as one of many Headwaters Regional Development Commission success stories.

And pushing for the new Bemidji Regional Event Center may help keep young northern Minnesota talent -- hockey and academic -- in northern Minnesota.

They are but two chapters in a story of multiple successes by the HRDC in a number of areas, said Cliff Tweedale, HRDC executive director, during the HRDC Board's annual meeting Thursday evening in Bagley.

"Some of these stories are in mid-story, with a forward and a couple of chapters," Tweedale said. "Some are completed but there are a whole bunch more chapters to be written."

HRDC staff members outlined a half-dozen such stories to tell commissioners the impact the regional development entity has had in a five-county region in housing, economic development, healthy lifestyles and community development.

A woman, living with her mother and two children, called the HRDC's arm, the Headwaters Regional Finance Corp., about six months ago and said her home was being foreclosed, said Mary Thompson, who administrates the program.

"She was really struggling with what she was going to do," Thompson said. The woman tried the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development office and determined that she could only swing a $60,000 mortgage.

"At that point, we could do nothing for her," she said. Since part of her problem was credit issues, Thompson said she referred the woman to financial counseling. That boosted her ability for mortgage to $115,000.

"With that, we were able to start packaging some things together to make this work for her," Thompson said. "A lot of partners came together."

She used the USDA Rural Development's Direct Loan Program for low-income families, a Headwaters Housing Development Corp. interest-free gap financing loan and a Greater Minnesota Housing Fund gap financing assistance.

The home itself is in a rural area because of special needs for the woman's son, said Aaron Chirpich, HRDC development specialist. The home was rehabilitated for better air quality, and was able to use the new $8,000 tax credit from the federal economic stimulus package.

"The really cool story is about one family coming together, trying to do in one house, meeting the goals of some of our biggest partners and certainly the goal of finding a family in need a house that exceeded the wildest expectations that they would have ever had six months ago," Chirpich said. "It's just a home run for us."

In another success story, Dave Hengel, director of the HRDC's Center for Community Stewardship, told of an important spin-off from the event center that will house Bemidji State's NCAA Division I and WCHA hockey program. The center, along with "Bemidji Leads!", strongly supported the event center as a community project.

"Amidst the chaos of a $60 million facility, $15 million economic impact, crazy politics ... and the last segment of WCHA hockey in Bemidji, you sometimes lose sight of simple stories," said Hengel, who is also an adjunct instructor at BSU.

He found a student in his class, Kyle Hardwick of Warroad, who this year will be a senior defenseman and captain on the Beaver hockey team, writing letters to all Minnesota legislators to encourage their support to help fund the event center -- even though he'll never play in it.

"He said a place like that allows a kid who loves northern Minnesota to stay in northern Minnesota," Hengel said. "He wanted to make sure that was the case for people who followed in his footsteps into BSU hockey. He knew that without the event center there would be no hockey program."

Hardwick is also an Academic All-Conference student, Hengel said.

"When we talk about retaining talent and keeping talent in northern Minnesota, this is the kind of thing that quality of life investments can do," he said.

Matthew Dyrdahl, HRDC development specialist, began his success story with three weak push-ups.

"The average person in the Headwaters Region doesn't get enough exercise, doesn't have the healthiest diet in the world and probably will have health-related problems that are preventable," he said.

"The average kid doesn't walk to school who potentially could, most people drive to work and many of us don't get out and enjoy the natural environment through physical activity," he added.

The statewide obesity rate in Minnesota in 1985 was less than 10 percent of the population, Dyrdahl said. It grew to 15 percent in 1995 and was nearly 25 percent in 2005.

The HRDC joined with the Beltrami Wellness for Long Life and Blue Cross in an active living program, he said. "We have a great opportunity to be pro-active in our region ... on active living which incorporates physical activity into your daily life -- walking to work, just getting out and walking your dog, developing policy that promotes active living."

Activities could include making sure that sidewalks are included in subdivision ordinances to making sure people are aware of the health benefits, and health problems if people don't become active.

A plan has been completed in Bemidji, with a four-year timeline to implement it. "And we want to broaden the scope, and get active living into other parts of the region."

Parks and trails in Mahnomen is being looked at, he said.

Other successes include economic development through a new high-tech firm, EXB Solutions which is employing local talent, economic development through new tribal facilities on the White Earth Reservation to siting a new supporting housing project for 20 homeless families in Bemidji.

Completing a new paved trail through Blackduck is another success story, said Tony Mayer, HRDC technical planner. The HRDC helped the city to secure the right grants and leverage $150,000 for the 2-mile project.

"The project went through three city administrators, they had right-of-way that had been promised that was almost pulled at the very end," Mayer said. "They could have simply given up at any point, but they never did. They did get it paved this year."

Mayer said that "at the end of the day, we pushed paperwork through for them."

"The reality is Tony doesn't push paper," said Tweedale told commissioners. "You built homes for people that have kids with disabilities, you do quality of life improvements for safe homes, you built trails and do some active living stuff so people can be healthier five years from now than they are today, you do supportive service housing and you take a risk at it.

"All of that stuff is what we do," he said. "Although we push more than our fair share of paper, it isn't to push paper for the heck of it, it's because we do trails, we do housing, we do quality of life improvements."

It takes both a good staff and really committed commission members to do that, Tweedale said.

Over the next two years he said the HRDC hopes to see housing projects in all five counties and in the seven or eight major cities, not just Bemidji and Park Rapids. He also wants expand supportive services housing.

Moving active living to three other communities is a goal, see at least four communities form a school-community collaborative to retain local talent, have four purchased and rehabilitated houses sold at profit with two or three in small communities, and match natural resource commodities producers with entrepreneurs to create innovation.

Tweedale said he'd like to see groundbreaking in two years in a small rural community for a new bioproduct manufacturer.

"Is that a dream or are those goals?" Tweedale asked. "My sense is, given the commitment and given the quality of this staff, I have to think they're goals."