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Development plans still in works, but nothing imminent

BEMIDJI – The city no longer is planning for the immediate expansion of a Twin Cities-based marketing firm.

Skybridge Marketing Group, based in Rockford, Minn., announced in January that it would expand to Bemidji and bring with it about 200 new jobs. But those plans are indefinitely on hold, Dave Hengel, executive director of Greater Bemidji, said Monday evening in a Bemidji City Council work session.

Hengel, while offering an update on Greater Bemidji initiatives and projects, said the owner of Skybridge got nervous about expansion plans.

If the company does choose to expand, it still plans to do so in the Bemidji area, Hengel continued.

“I can’t promise anything, but I’m hopeful. I really am hopeful,” Hengel said.

Greater Bemidji, formerly known as the Joint Economic Development Commission, has been in transition for nearly two years. Larry Young, the former executive director, retired in September 2010. Marc Wiechmann, a 22-year JEDC board member and former president, served as interim director as the organization examined its role in the community.

Since Hengel took over in January, Greater Bemidji has implemented several internal changes, ranging from its new name and logo to identifying new strategic areas of focus.

With that work complete, Hengel said, the focus now is changing to its external projects.

One of those is the establishment of the Water Institute of Northern Minnesota, which would be a water-testing laboratory.

Hengel, crediting former Beltrami County Administrator Tony Murphy with the idea, said Northern Minnesota counties now send their water to a lab in Detroit Lakes for testing.

Murphy suggested that area counties work together to have the lab work, instead, done locally at BSU, which used to have a water-quality lab.

The project, Hengel explained, would get students involved in the data collection and research into improving surface water in the region.

“It’s going to have a big impact,” Hengel said.

The project has become a partnership of Greater Bemidji, BSU, the Headwaters Regional Development Commission and Beltrami County.

“(It) is becoming a really powerful thing,” Hengel said.

Another project is the development of a high-performance training center. This was developed as five key companies – TEAM Industries, EXB Solutions, LaValley Industries, North Central Door and Potlatch – came together for initial discussions on the need for trained workers.

Such a center is not available north of the Twin Cities, Hengel said.

“They believe it’s a huge opportunity for this community,” he said, noting such a program could involve a partnership with Northwest Technical College and/or BSU.

An ongoing project for Greater Bemidji is the marketing and development of the south shore of Lake Bemidji.

“I think it’s the greatest opportunity we have to change the economy in the Bemidji region,” Hengel said.

He noted Rich Siegert is now developing the Green Mill expansion and his new DoubleTree Hotel while an expected Sanford Center-attached Country Inn & Suites will soon be in development along with an attached Buffalo Wild Wings.

There also has been interest in the development of townhomes to the east of Sanford Center, Hengel said, and a North Dakota developer also has recently inquired about the south shore.

“I think there’s opportunity there,” Hengel said.

One of those opportunities, though, ended up looking at another part of town. Hengel had pitched the south shore to Opus, a Minnetonka, Minn.,-based development group, but Opus, instead, became interested in the old Beltrami County fairgrounds site behind Target.

John Chattin, city manager, confirmed that Opus remains interested in Bemidji but said the market isn’t strong enough yet – here in Bemidji or anywhere – to support the development of a major retail center.

Opus still is interested in developing a 300,000-square-foot retail space, Hengel said.

“The minute (they have) a change in heart, we’ll jump on it,” he said.

Hengel also said local developer Mike Ettesvold remains interested in the former Minnesota Department of Transportation site, located at the “Y” intersection of Paul Bunyan Drive near Lueken’s Village Foods South.