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Bemidji City Council: Neighborhood study advances

Seven firms have submitted proposals stating their interest in leading a study into Bemidji's neighborhoods.

Now that field has been narrowed to two.

Bonestroo, a firm out of St. Paul, and the Headwaters Regional Development Commission are the city's top two choices to proceed with Bemidji's Quality Neighborhood Initiative.

"We're at the point now where we need to bring these two in for interviews," Bemidji City Councilor Kevin Waldhausen told his fellow councilors Monday.

Waldhausen serves on a city committee - along with Councilors Jerry Downs and Ron Johnson and city staff members - that is charged with leading the QNI study. That committee has reviewed the seven proposals and selected Bonestroo and the HRDC as its preferred firms.

Committee members on Monday updated the full Bemidji City Council on the status of the QNI study and asked for the council's continued support in moving forward.

The council did not take a formal vote on the study - it already voted 5-1 in September in favor of the QNI study - but demonstrated a consensus in wanting to proceed.

"I do think the council supports this," said Mayor Richard Lehmann. "It's just a matter of the funding."

The cost for the QNI study initially was expected to be between $35,000 and $50,000.

Bonestroo has submitted a proposal for $48,000, which would include 425 labor hours.

The HRDC has proposed a $60,000 study with 800 hours. Of that cost, the HRDC believes partial funding would be obtained through the Northwest Minnesota Foundation. The HRDC, too, would contribute.

The HRDC projected a $20,000 cost to the city of Bemidji.

Finance Director Ron Eischens said the city has the money.

He noted that the city has more than $40,000 budgeted for contingency funds for 2010, and it also has more than $3 million in cash reserves.

The council just needs to tell him the preferred source for funding, Eischens said.

"I don't think it's an issue of if the money's there," he said.

Bonestroo has completed similar housing studies for cities such as Moorhead, Fargo, Mankato, St. Cloud and Minneapolis.

"In Bemidji, as in these other communities, the University is a tremendous community and regional asset," Bonestroo writes in its proposal. "But the typical conflicts that arise when students, landlords, long-time residents, community leaders and college administrators interact can be very difficult.

"There is no single quick, easy fix and all parties must be willing to examine their assumptions and apply their resources and insight to arrive at long-term solutions."

Downs noted that Bonestroo's experience with other college cities would be beneficial for Bemidji's QNI.

But, he also said he understood there also would be benefits with utilizing a local firm.

"(The HRDC) is still going to be here in case two years from now, five years from now, we need to take another look at it," he said.

One of the concerns cited was that the city had hoped to start the study this year and finish it in spring.

However, the HRDC cannot begin until April.

"They'd be starting about the time we're hoping to get it done," Johnson said.

Downs said the influx of pipeline workers is a "temporary situation that will correct itself in less than a year," so perhaps starting later would be workable.

"There are really good advantages and pros and cons for both (firms)," Johnson said.

The QNI study was adopted as the preferred choice by the City Council in looking at the city's neighborhoods after the council voted to not move forward with a moratorium on new rental registrations for single-family homes.

During debate and discussion on the then-proposed rental moratorium, select councilors argued that the city was experiencing an increase in blight and stated that neighborhoods were losing their character as single-family homes are converted to rental properties.

The city of Bemidji, according to council documents, has experienced a 40 percent to 50 percent increase in the number of rental-occupied single-family homes since 2005.

According to their proposals, both Bonestroo and the HRDC plan to look at ways to maintain and encourage quality neighborhoods.

"Not just one issue is the sole cause of the perceived neighborhood decline, and not just one strategy can be undertaken to reverse the trend," the HRDC wrote in its proposal. "Rather, a multi-pronged effort is needed and, just as importantly, broad neighborhood resident support needs to be gained."