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'New Vision' for downtown Bemidji: Headwaters Science Center expands dreams to include culture and the arts

A New Vision initiative has been adopted that would create a new regional center for science, history, culture and the arts. The 90,000-square-foot facility would feature a partnership among the Headwaters Science Center, Bemidji Community Arts Center, Beltrami County Historical Society, Audubon Society (Spearhead Center) and American Indian tribes. Illustration Courtesy Widseth Smith Nolting1 / 2
The Headwaters Science Center would be located in the rear of the facility, which would offer potentials for outdoors programming and access to the Mississippi River. There also would be a greenhouse in which students could learn about growing plants. Illustration Courtesy Widseth Smith Nolting2 / 2

Supporters of Headwaters Science Center were crushed last year when then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty line-item-vetoed $475,000 in planning and design funds toward a new $26 million building project.

But, in retrospect, that might have helped spur them to think a little bigger.

The Headwaters Science Center still has aims for a new project, but it now has hopes to be the anchor of a multi-tenant building for history, culture, arts and science.

Plans for the New Vision project were unveiled Monday during a presentation to the Bemidji City Council, which subsequently voted unanimously to support the endeavor.

The New Vision is a collaboration among the Headwaters Science Center, Beltrami County Historical Society, Bemidji Community Arts Center, Audubon Society (Spearhead Center) and American Indian tribes.

"We've been seeking support for the Science Center in years past, but this project expands it, nearly doubles the size of the project to bring in culture, history and the arts," said Paul Richards, an architect with Widseth Smith Nolting, which has donated its services to the project.

Cultural, historical, arts and science groups would join together to establish and support a 90,000-square-foot building with galleries, exhibits, classrooms, laboratories, an auditorium and administrative and support offices.

"It's more than just exhibits," Richards said. "It's about working together."

The facility would meet the needs and wants expressed by the Science Center in recent years, including more exhibit space and room for outdoors programming and education.

Laddie Elwell, the executive director of the Science Center, said that when visitors come to Bemidji from outside the region, they always ask if it is really true that Minnesotans drive on the ice atop their lakes in the winter.

Elwell said the new facility would have room to establish a cold room, which would be a chamber that would show these visitors exactly what 20 degrees below zero feels like.

Also, the Science Center would offer the potential of educating people about geothermal energy and could host a functioning geothermal well in the exhibit space.

"There are so many wonderful things that can happen," she said.

Elwell announced that Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, is introducing a request to the House for $11.6 million in bonding dollars that would get the project started.

Richards explained that those dollars, if approved, would fund footings, foundation, geothermal wells, utility work and site work.

"It may be a long shot, but this is such an exciting project," Elwell said. "We want this project to bring this community together."

Elwell said Gov. Mark Dayton was supportive and receptive to the project during Bemidji Day at the Capitol last week.

Dayton specifically addressed the need to have projects that would fund jobs, she said, noting that the first stage of work would create about 90 full-time positions.

"Planning will not go anywhere in the Legislature this year," she said. "We were made fully aware of that."

The facility would be located on a 5.5-acre parcel of city-owned land east of the Great Northern Depot Museum. The land already has been earmarked by the City Council as the location for a new Science Center.

The project - which also is being touted as the Headwaters Regional Center for Science, History, Culture and the Arts - would feature a two- and three-story building with room for exhibits and displays.

The main entrance area would have a shared lobby and gift shop area. On the second floor would be a café/cafeteria, from which students or others could look out, watching, perhaps, for an arriving school bus or parental ride.

There would be two other wings: one for arts and one for culture and history. For culture and history, displays and exhibits would focus on the immigrants of the area and also the indigenous tribes of the region.

The Science Center would be in the rear of the building, which would offer an outlet to outdoors programming and access to the Mississippi River.

"We see this opportunity as a magnet not only for the public, but also for visitors coming to this region," Richards said.

The areas pertaining to the culture, history and science sections of the building would be two stories tall as their exhibit and display areas need to be 26 feet tall.

The area for arts would be three levels, with a middle floor offering classrooms and educational space. The third level would be administrative and support areas.

John Hawthorne, a member of the ad-hoc New Vision Initiative Committee, said the project serves as a culture mall.

He noted that one of the members of the committee is former state Sen. Mary Olson, who he said helped supporters to expand the Science Center idea to the New Vision.

"One of the criticisms (when the planning and design funding was line-item-vetoed) was that the Science Center itself was too local," Hawthorne said.

The current project now features a collaboration with other organizations to build a synergy, to strengthen the region's science, historical, cultural and art connections, he said.

The Depot itself is a historical building, and it is protected, Richards noted.

While the Historical Society does the New Vision project, no official decision has been made about the Beltrami County History Center and whether it would relocate completely into the new building, Richards said. A Historical Society board meeting is planned, during which the topic likely will be discussed.

City Councilor Ron Johnson said that local and regional nonprofit organizations have often talked about the need for a common location.

Elwell said the New Vision project has been discussed at monthly nonprofit meetings and she has heard very positive feedback. The facility would offer administrative space for rent.

"There's great excitement about the possibility of having all of this for nonprofits, a place where they can come together," she said.