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Bemidji Day at the Capitol set for March 9

Public works projects for the Bemidji area should top an agenda for Bemidji Day at the Capitol, a community panel thought Friday.

With nearly $30 million in capital bonding projects in the pot, lobbying for support will become key in a legislative session geared to pass a bonding bill that could reach $1 billion for public works projects.

Only about a dozen people showed up for Friday's early morning Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce session to work out an agenda for the next Bemidji Day at the Capitol.

Chamber President Lori Paris said that would be March 9, a Tuesday.

"They must think the Legislature doesn't have any money this year," Bemidji City Manager John Chattin said of the low turnout.

"And that (Gov. Tim ) Pawlenty will veto it," added Laddie Elwell, founder and director of the Headwaters Science Center.

To some degree, that's true.

Bemidji State University's top priority this year is $2 million for land acquisition for the old Bemidji High School property on 15th Street, which was purchased by the BSU Foundation. The state money is needed to pay back the Foundation.

Three separate times the funding has been approved by both the House and Senate only to be line-item vetoed by Pawlenty, said Bill Maki, BSU vice president for finance and administration.

"We've done a good job of selling it to the Legislature, but we need to get across the finish line," Maki said. Even though ranked 31st on Minnesota State Colleges and Universities' project list, "our hope is to get this done."

Land acquisition is a tough sell to begin with, but the BSU request is made tougher because there are no immediate plans for the site. The hope, however, is for long-term campus expansion without having to decimate the neighborhood by razing homes.

"The use is fuzzy," Maki said. "It's out a ways, In a long-term plan, that 11 acres might not get developed for 20 years."

But the BSU Foundation can't continue to carry the loan, he added, with the Foundation may having to consider selling the land to recoup the $2 million.

BSU is also seeking $3.4 million in planning and design funds for a major Memorial Hall/Hobson Student Union renovation to relocate the campus' Business Department, Maki said. Also sought is $550,000 to complete an upgrade to Northwest Technical College industry technology labs such as automotive.

Noting that the Legislature may begin budget talks as the next biennium faces up to a $7 billion deficit, Maki said BSU is already incorporating funds unallotted by Pawlenty. "We are all competing for diminishing dollars, and we don't want to be cut any more," he said.

The same is true for the city of Bemidji and state-paid Local Government Aid, said Chattin, adding that the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities is waging an expensive campaign to restore lost aid.

"We just need to lobby not to have it cut any more," Chattin said. "We need to preserve LGA. We also need a new formula for LGA as it just doesn't fly any more."

The city is also asking for bonding, $1 million as part of a $2 million trail bridge over state Highway 197 to complete the Paul Bunyan Trail in the city.

Chattin said the city is pursuing the bonding as the project is nearly shovel-ready, while there could be as much as a two-year delay for planning and design if the city allowed the state Department of Natural Resources to pursue the bonding.

"The city can get it done and then turn it over to the DNR," he said.

The largest local project seeking state bonding funds is a new Headwaters Science Center, to be located between Pamida and the Beltrami History Center, Elwell said.

The $26 million 52,000-square-foot facility would seek $13 million in state bonding, she said, but added that firmer projects estimates may come after today when a architect scopes out the project,

Organizers want to incorporate a "green" design for the new science center, Elwell said, "as a demonstration site of how a busy building works in a northern climate."

She was advised to firm up sources for matching funds, as that is what lawmakers will ask. "It is difficult to promise something when there is no way of knowing what foundations will do," Elwell said.

"Sustainability -- I understand we need to show that also," she said. "We need a person to put that together."

The Science Center has outgrown its downtown Bemidji location and a new facility can spur activity, she said, adding that 25,000 people visited the Science Center last year.

"We intend to collaborate as much as possible," Elwell said, adding that she hopes to partner with BSU to include an astronomy component into the new Science Center that BSU students may use.

Incorporating a water testing lab is also a possibility, she said.

While the meeting was held in the County Administration Building, no one from Beltrami County attended to add to the Capitol Day agenda.

But Paris said the county is seeking bonding for a jail efficiency project and for a shooting sports park in Eckles Township.

Members of the House Capital Investment Committee heard Bemidji's bonding pitches earlier this month; the Senate Capital Investment Committee makes the same tour to Bemidji on Wednesday.

Paris also said that the agenda, to be compiled by the Chamber's Public Affairs Committee, will probably include efforts to site a Minnesota Veterans Home in northern Minnesota, despite a state report ranking such an idea 17th on a list of veterans facilities throughout the state.

Bemidji Schools Superintendent James Hess reiterated a position that remains unsolved -- divvying up state transportation dollars in a more equitable way that recognizes actual miles traveled on school buses rather than by student population.

But the School Board also wants relief from mandates without state funding. "We had over six pages of recommended mandate reductions last year and the Legislature reduced about four and added six new ones."

The School Board also wants no additional budget cuts, with Hess saying the district is worse off with Pawlenty's school aid shift rather than a straight unallotment.

Typically, the state pays 90 percent of its state aid to schools on time and shifts 10 percent to a later time. Now, that shift is 73/27, meaning the school district had to go out and gain authority to borrow $9 million if needed, Hess said.

The district continues to seek equity and fairness in general education funding, Hess said.

Giving a business perspective, former Chamber Chairman Mike Beard said forestry needs to be included on the legislative lobbying agenda, especially in light of a DNR study showing that nowhere near the sustainable harvest of 5.5 million cords is being reached.

Health care will be an issue, said Dave Larson, architect with EAPC, "but I don't have a clue where health care will be five months from now."

Paris said North Country Health Services, which wasn't at Friday's meeting, may suggest an agenda similar to last year, topped by better reimbursement rates for public assistance patients.

Bemidji CPA Hank Krigbaum took note of the Minnesota Chamber's No. 1 priority of the state budget and that it be balanced without a general fund tax increase.

"With businesses failing there is a decrease in state tax revenues," Krigbaum said. "When the state spends money, it's nice to say increase taxes, but taxable income isn't there."

The state needs a more long-term budget, he said.

On March 9, several buses of Bemidji participants clad in Paul Bunyan red-and-black sweaters will meet in teams with as many legislators as possible in their Capitol offices to lobby for items on the agenda.

"We'll have to look at the cards we have to play with come February and March," Larson said.

"Bemidji has consistently beaten the odds and there's no reason why we can't again," Chattin said, citing the successful effort to fund the Bemidji Regional Event Center.