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Design team plans fall visit to Bemidji

BEMIDJI - Seven years ago, the Minnesota Design Team led a three-day planning session in Walker and that work is still used today.

"I think it's a really healthy thing for a community to do," said Char Moore, who in 2005 was a co-chair of the MDT committee and now is on the Walker City Council. "When we hit our 10-year point, I think it wouldn't be a problem for Walker to think about doing it again."

The Bemidji community now is planning for an MDT visit of its own this September. The MDT is a volunteer organization that visits two communities in the spring and two in the fall to help design and plan for their future, taking into account their dreams and interests.

Ardean Brasgalla, who was mayor of Cass Lake when the design team visited there in 1997, praised the process, saying everyone was given a disposable camera and was sent out to take pictures of areas in the community needing improvements.

"We were very impressed with the ideas (generated) because the whole community was behind it," Brasgalla said.

The MDT visit will focus on Bemidji and the surrounding community. The application was sent about six months ago through the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board, which now is working with committees to facilitate events for the Sept. 13-16 weekend.

The MDT is composed of more than 300 volunteers statewide. About 20 of them lead individual community-planning visits.

MDT members stay in host families' homes, both to save costs and also to immerse themselves in the community. The weekend features a reception, tours of the area and two large public events for brainstorming and presentations.

But a key to the success of the event is public involvement.

"You want hundreds of people to get involved with it," Moore said. "People will come up with ideas that make you just stop and say, 'Oh wow.'"

Mayana Rice, the planning administrator for the Bemidji area's JPB, said she wants more than 200 people involved from the Bemidji community.

"The real focus will be on ideas, areas of concern," she said. "It's not necessarily to just showcase what an amazing community but to really look at the future projects we would be interested in."

Walker's MDT visit evolved while the city was working with the Initiative Foundation, which serves 14 counties in central Minnesota, on fostering a healthy community. Moore said Walker was told grants were available for those efforts but the community would have to go through an MDT visit to be eligible.

"It strengthened our community," she said of the design team's visit. "It brought everyone together to put all their ideas together. I thought it was very, very valuable."

Ideas included improvements for bike trails, parkland areas and the downtown, focusing on the areas owned by the city of Walker. One idea generated was the creation of a new annual festival, prompting the creation of Walker Bay Days, which will celebrate its seventh year this summer.

In the event's earlier years, Moore noted, all of the proceeds from the event went to park improvements.

"That sprung from the Minnesota Design Team visit and the committee that we formed," she said.

In Cass Lake, the MDT visit evolved from discussion within the MIRACLE group. MIRACLE - Moving Ideas & Relationships for the Advancement of Cass Lake's Economy - met to discuss ways to improve the community.

"We put them all on a bus. They wanted to see a tour so I was the tour master," Brasgalla recalled. "We looked everywhere, from a mile north of town, showing them the whole Cass Lake area, the south side of the tracks. Everything we could think of. The oddity was that after I showed them everything, they had already planned how to improve the area."

Many of the ideas developed through the MDT visit have been implemented, Brasgalla said. Four years ago, Cass Lake improved its streetscapes, adding new street lights and improving sidewalks.

Rice said the MDT team made a screening visit to the area three weeks ago, after which it said Bemidji was chosen as a fall site.

Several factors likely made Bemidji appealing to the MDT, Rice speculated, including the area's joint planning collaboration and the lack of existing comprehensive plans.

Also, she said, the MDT does not often get into northern Minnesota and Bemidji is a mid-sized city with both rural and metropolitan areas.

Planning now is underway as the JPB is managing seven committees tasked with an array of duties, from finding host homes, to selecting sites for all of the events, to finding sponsors. Anyone who wishes to get involved in the process or host an MDT member may call Rice at 759-3594.

"This is a team process," Rice said. "Everyone's voice gets heard."

The September visit will essentially kick-off the process for designing the JPB's Comprehensive Plan, a 15-year plan for the community's development.

A comprehensive plan is multifaceted and goes beyond zoning areas, which the JPB already has defined. The two townships, Rice said, have never had a comp plan in place and the city hasn't had one in more than two decades.

"This is very different than a comp plan," Rice said of the design team's visit. "This is a kick-off meeting to get everyone to come out and get involved in the planning of the community. The comp plan will take a look at these ideas."