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Bemidji Mayor Larson excited for 2012 after challenging year

Bemidji Mayor Dave Larson confers with City Clerk Kay Murphy during his State of the City address. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

With state funding to local cities appearing to be stable, Bemidji Mayor Dave Larson is looking forward to focusing on other issues, such as strategic planning.

Larson delivered the city's annual State of the City address during the regular council meeting Tuesday evening.

"The council and all city employees have been engaged in a strengths-based strategic-planning process for several months and are now planning how we will reach our defined goals in the areas of public safety, economic growth, and employee engagement," Larson said.

Larson said he has enjoyed his first year as Bemidji mayor and is looking forward to the second year of his two-year term.

"It is impressive to see the variety of assets we have here in the North Country; in facilities, organizations and, more importantly, in our people," Larson said. "We have all of the ingredients necessary to move our community forward as the First City on the Mississippi, as a true light of the North, as a leading community and as the regional center of Northern Minnesota."

Larson's address noted that 2011 was "another challenging year" for city governments, but focused more so on accomplishments the city can celebrate.

"Local government aid revenues remained stagnant and finding the resources to retain the essential and valued city services was difficult," he said in opening the speech.

While Larson highlighted accomplishments in every department, he began with the Sanford Center, which in October completed its first year of operation. The events center, he said, hosted more than 130,000 people in 2011.

"The reviews have been positive and we continue to make improvements based on input from both our citizens and our management firm, VenuWorks," Larson said.

The changes planned for the Sanford Center include a new executive director, Roger Swanson, who took over this month as the permanent executive director after serving as its interim director in late 2011.

The city in 2012 is anticipating planned development in the south shore surrounding the Sanford Center. Two new hotels are planned - a DoubleTree Inn to be attached to the Green Mill and a Country Inn & Suites to be connected to the Sanford Center at its George W. Neilson Convention and Conference Center.

"We can look forward to hosting more conventions and conferences to supplement the variety of events we currently offer," Larson said. "We're looking forward to a great year for the Sanford Center."

One of the longer-term projects undertaken by the city and consultants was the revision of its master parks plan. That work was complete late last year, "providing a blueprint for a comprehensive, balanced, and sustainable parks system that provides a variety of amenities and activities," Larson said.

"The update of the master plan was timely and will give renewed direction and perspective for our parks and trails development and operation," he said.

Work also began on the newest city park, North Country Park, located along 30th Street Northwest. The first phase of park development includes a new baseball field, trails, basketball court, restrooms, and associated facilities.

In other parks news, Larson noted that renovations at City Park were recognized with an Award of Excellence in 2011 for its innovation and creativity, and Cameron Park also received "a major upgrade."

A long-sought trail bridge over state Highway 197 began to become a reality.

Design of the bridge, which will span the roadway at the intersection with First Street, was completed and given to the Minnesota Department of Transportation. The DNR, which is the source for the bridge's funding, will open bids on that project this week and construction is expected this summer.

Regarding city roadways, Larson said the $2.8 million 2011 street reconstruction project led to reconstructed streets and replacement of water mains, sanitary sewers and storm sewers.

Construction on a new primary digester building at the city's wastewater treatment plant was started.

"This $4.5 million project will add capacity to the city's existing plant, enabling the city to meet both existing demands and future growth," Larson said.

The Bemidji Police Department has entered a new era as the force got a little younger and a lot more technological.

Five officers, including the police chief, two sergeants and a captain, retired in 2011. Combined, they had more than 130 years of police experience.

Mike Mastin has since been promoted to police chief and is working to replace staff positions, Larson said.

"One of the more significant improvements has been the implementation of a new records management system and installation of mobile computers in our squad cars," Larson said. "This new system has improved communications and work flow while reducing the need for duplicate data entry."

The department also worked to secure grants totaling $138,000, to assist with auto theft, impaired driving, and radio upgrades.

The Bemidji Fire Department in 2011 responded to 2,308 calls, including 84 fire calls, with no loss of life or serious injuries from fire.

"They have established an enviable average response time of just over five minutes, critical for anyone who is waiting for emergency assistance," Larson said.

Mike Miller took over the Building Department after the retirement of Bill Barthelemy.

"He has been working to implement the new rental ordinance," Larson said. "A new rental inspector was hired to assist with that process."

Bemidji's two municipal liquor stores continue perform well, Larson said, as they outperform "all but a handful of stores in the state."

Profits from the liquor stores are used to fund or help fund a variety of city projects that otherwise would require additional property taxes, he noted.

The city's GIS department has worked with Beltrami County to make the GIS mapping website the "go-to place for accessing accurate information on parcels, ownership, and utility information," he said.