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Bemidji hires Diamond Point firm to update master parks and trail plan

Once a city has a bad experience with a consultant, it has to take a hard look at that company when considering it for any future projects, according to Ron Johnson.

Johnson was among two Bemidji city councilors Monday night who expressed reservations in hiring Brauer and Associates, of Hopkins, Minn., to update the city's master parks, trails and open space plan.

"I cannot support hiring them for any project in the city," Johnson said.

Brauer and Associates was the firm that designed the reconstructed Diamond Point Park. The project, which has since received an Award of Excellence from the Minnesota Recreation and Parks Association, ran over budget. Diamond Point originally was scheduled for a $1.65 million upgrade. It ended up costing $3.3 million, about 40 percent of the total $9.8 million parks and trails sales-tax funds.

Roger Hellquist, who like Johnson was among the three-councilor minority in 2006 who voted against the final Diamond Point design, said he would not vote to support the hiring of Brauer and Associates.

The firm ended up over budget with Diamond Point, Hellquist said. While he agreed that the outcome of Diamond Point was good, it "really hamstringed" the available funding for other city parks.

Brauer and Associates was one of five firms that responded to the city's request for proposals to update the master parks plan. A five-person selection committee - a Parks and Trails Commission member, staff and community members and an Active Living representative - rated the firms and recommended Brauer and Associates.

"I believe Brauer can do a good job and do what we need done," said Marcia Larson, the city's parks and recreation director, who served on the selection committee.

Larson said Brauer and Associates is known and respected throughout the state for its master planning and development of master park plans.

Bauer and Associates had the best overall plan and the best plan for soliciting public input, Larson said.

The council ultimately voted 4-1 to hire Brauer and Associates. Hellquist was opposed. Councilors Greg Negard and Kevin Waldhausen were absent.

Larson did not work for the city of Bemidji at the time of the Diamond Point project, but said there is a difference between designing a park and updating a park plan.

For instance, she said, Kimle-Horn and Associates did the design for the renovated Bemidji City Park, but chose to not submit a proposal for the updated plan project because its staff does not have expertise in that area.

"It kind of takes a different skill set," Larson said. "Brauer, again, is known statewide."

Johnson acknowledged that a different set of skills could reveal different strengths.

Councilor Rita Albrecht, who was a city's staffer at the time of the Diamond Point project, said she had to disagree with Johnson's and Hellquist's objections.

She said Brauer and Associates completed the master trail plan for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

"(Brauer's) public participation process is bar-none the best process I have seen or worked with in this city," Albrecht said.

While acknowledging that Diamond Point ran over budget, Albrecht said the Bemidji community now has an award-winning park because of the work done by the firm.

"I still think it was money well spent," she said.

The overall parks plan was developed and approved in 2001. It involves a comprehensive analysis and plan for the parks, open space and trail systems throughout Bemidji.

The master plan, according to Larson, has been used extensively by the Parks and Trails Commission, which always first refers to the plan when considering projects and priorities.

But it is 10 years old.

Since 2001, the community and its park users have changed, Larson noted. Demographics have changed, the city is poised to welcome new annexation areas, there are new parks and trails in the south shore redevelopment area, and there also have been new commitments to healthy living through Fit City and Active Living.

Further, the city has only approximately $1 million remaining in the sales-tax funds, which have all been earmarked.

Once that money is gone, the city needs to have a plan for future trail connections, facilities and operation and maintenance, Larson said.

"That's the bigger picture," she said. "That's why I feel strongly that we need that comprehensive document."

The proposal from Brauer and Associates was for $55,700. It was the middle-priced bid of the five received.

The Active Living partnership, funded through Blue Cross Blue Shield, has dedicated $20,000 toward the project. The city also has received a $20,000 grant from the Northwest Minnesota Foundation.

The remaining $15,700 will come from funding dedicated to the parks department in the city's capital improvement fund. It will not come from sales-tax funds.