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Enbridge: Influx of pipeliners increasing city's housing needs

Rows of pipe are stored on Bunyan Avenue Southeast in the Bemidji Industrial Park. While work is advancing on the two pipelines being built by Enbridge Energy Corp. Inc., there is still a lot of pipe awaiting use. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

With pipeline work requiring up to 1,000 workers in the Bemidji area, some property owners are considering opening their doors to allow for renters.

But the city of Bemidji would like to remind them that it's not always quite that easy.

All rental properties in Bemidji - whether an apartment, a house or a room within a house - require rental licenses.

In order to obtain a license, a property owner must meet the city's requirements, which include an egress window for each bedroom and screens on all openable windows. Properties must have one smoke detector in each bedroom and one per house level, and also must have a carbon monoxide detector within 10 feet of each bedroom.

"As long as a house is safe, we're happy," said Bill Barthelemy, Bemidji's building official.

To obtain a license, interested property owners must fill out an application. Then, rental inspectors will begin their inspections.

Property owners, Barthelemy noted, may change their minds and opt out of the license process up until the time of inspection. However, once an inspector steps through the front door, the property owner will be required to pay the $150 license fee.

The first inspection has inspectors walking through the potential rental areas and noting any deficiencies, if found, that must be corrected prior to a license being granted.

The second inspection, set at a time chosen by the property owners, is a follow-up inspection that ensures that all deficiencies previously located have been remedied.

Depending on the condition of the rental property, the license process can take as little as one or two weeks.

The increase in demand for rental properties is primarily due to pipeliners coming into town to work on the two Enbridge Energy Corp. pipelines.

Lorraine Grymala, the community affairs manager for Enbridge, said the two lines will each require between 350 and 500 pipeliners at the peak of construction.

The housing need has also prompted the possible reopening of the Northern Inn. Todd Lowth, with Bob Lowth Ford, which bought the building in March 2008, said he is looking at making available all 123 rooms.

The building would have to be brought up to code, which would include the installation of sprinklers in the hotel portion of the facility.

The Indoor Auto Mall would remain in operation in the area that used to serve as a convention center, he said.

In order to meet the needs of the pipeliners, Lowth said the building would need to be ready for occupancy by mid-September.

But not all of those workers will require housing, Grymala noted. Enbridge estimates that about 50 percent of its workforce is hired through local unions.

The Bemidji area has seen the arrival of the pipeliners, who have been arriving in waves.

But, Grymala said, not everyone has yet arrived.

"You're seeing a lot of activity in the Bemidji area, but we're still just really gearing up," she said. "The bulk of construction will start to happen at some time between now and the end of the year."

Pipeliners will remain in the area for about eight months.

Some work, though, can't be finished until springtime, once wetlands are completely dethawed, Grymala said.

"This will mean a lot for the Bemidji economy," Barthelemy said. "But we want to have good, affordable, safe housing for these people."