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The ups and downs of downtown: As some businesses close, several more are readying to open in the heart of the city

The former American Legion building in downtown Bemidji. The owners of Bar 209 bought the building and are renovating the spot for the new Bar 209 and also a breakfast restaurant. (Matthew Liedke | Bemidji Pioneer)1 / 2
The downtown Bemidji gateway arch was installed in June over Third Street Northwest, across from the Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues. The project was a joint effort between the city of Bemidji and the Bemidji Downtown Alliance (BDA) with Kraus Anderson handling the construction. (Pioneer file art)2 / 2

BEMIDJI—Change is a natural part of life for businesses in Bemidji's downtown.

In the past year, some stores have closed, others are planning to relocate to the area and several more will be opening soon.

This month, the stores Urbanesque and Lucette Boutique announced they were planning to close. Last year, Herington's Shoes, which opened in 1947, and Kelsey's Jewelry, which opened in 1974, both closed with their owners retiring. In other parts of the downtown, though, the owners of Bar 209 are renovating the former home of the Bemidji American Legion and the local business Compass Rose is relocating to a downtown spot. The owner of Tara Thai in downtown Bemidji also is planning to add two additional downtown eateries.

The changes are part of a constant cycle that continues to occur in what is a largely vibrant section of the city, said Colleen Bakken and Nancy Vyskocil of the Bemidji Downtown Alliance. Bakken is the outgoing president and Vyskocil is the incoming president.

"We have cycles in our downtown and this is usually a time when places do end up closing," Bakken said. "Then, as more months pass, people start opening up again. It's usually a sign of spring."

"Because many spots downtown are often smaller, the spaces end up filling quickly," Vyskocil said. "Even with those two locations that are closing, there's already been plenty of interest."

Space was similarly filled quickly by other downtown exits. For example, after Ben Franklin Crafts closed in 2015, the space has since been filled by the office for Face it TOGETHER, a community addiction treatment program, and the Fusion Center, a program for fitness and dance training.

"Since Ben Franklin closed, we've had new places open-up, and it's still bringing people to our downtown," Bakken said.

According to Vyskocil, a reason for the sustainability of Bemidji's downtown is the community's involvement and the resources available.

"Here at the (Northwest Minnesota Foundation), we have the Entrepreneurial Loan Fund and the Small Business Development Center, and honestly, we're busier than ever with those two programs in this downtown," said Vyskocil, who is the president of the Northwest Minnesota Foundation. "I think another reason our downtown is vibrant and continues to thrive, though, is because we have given a lot of care to it."

Local business activity

The care given toward downtown businesses and developments is one of the reasons why Hannah Anderson, owner of Compass Rose, is relocating her company to the area.

"Ever since I worked downtown many years ago, I just enjoyed the business community there," Anderson said. "We have always had our eyes on being downtown. So, we worked with the Small Business Development Center and crunched numbers to see if it would work out. When we found out it would, we knew that it fit the mission of our business."

According to Anderson, the business will move into the downtown spot from its current location on Paul Bunyan Drive South on March 1 and open in April at 108 Third St. NW, the spot formerly held by The Least of These Fair Trade and Homemade Gift Shoppe. The location is next to Fozzie's Smokin Bar-B-Q, which itself opened last year.

"Everyone I've talked to is excited that we'll be moving down there. We're really excited about that, too. Especially with places like Lucette and Urbanesque closing, I think it's important that we're there to fill any void," Anderson said. "I would like to support other businesses, too. It's nice to be in such tight proximity to other businesses and there are great resources downtown. It gives shoppers the ability to walk around, get coffee with some people you know and shop."

When the new location of the home/gift boutique shop does open, Anderson said visitors can expect a few different experiences.

"We will have a coffee bar set up and we will also have a kids zone where children can play. We're even going to have a living room type of space for the guys to hang out while the ladies shop," Anderson said. "Also, upstairs we will have a DIY studio. At some point, fairly soon after we open, we will host classes there, people can get hands-on-skills there."

A few blocks away, on Minnesota Avenue Northwest, meanwhile, construction is underway at the former site of the Bemidji American Legion. The building, bought by Bar 209 owners Brett and Derek Leach, is getting remodeled to hold two establishments.

"We bought the building roughly three years ago," Derek Leach said. "We're doing a redesign where our current business, 209, is going to be on the north side of that building. Then, on the south side, we have a concept in the building for a new breakfast restaurant."

"We wanted more space and a new facility. It's probably what we wanted since the second year of starting 209, even though this building has been good to us," Brett Leach said. "The deal kind of worked out to be right. The American Legion was having some difficulty with their membership and the space was too big for them. So, they approached us to see if we wanted to buy it. Right now, we're expecting to be finished in mid-May."

Attractions outside of business just as important

While the businesses are integral to the downtown's success, though, Bakken and Vyskocil said attractions such as the arts are also key to creating foot traffic.

"People really love the arts downtown, and I actually didn't fully recognize how much of an impact it had at first," Vyskocil said. "Both the Sculpture Walk and the Watermark Arts Center."

The latter just recently finished a major $3 million project to provide a new home for the arts in Bemidji's downtown. The Watermark Arts Center building now holds four galleries, a shop to sell regional artwork and an education room for workshops.

"Watching that building transform was incredible," Bakken said. "We have a site there for Native American art and a great educational area."

"We also have the Chief Theater, and there's almost always something going on there. It can show films and it has the Paul Bunyan Playhouse," Vyskocil said. "During the summer, when the playhouse is going on, you almost can't find a parking spot."

Artistic value was also put into a new arch to go over Third Street at the intersection of Bemidji Avenue. The arch, designed by Widseth Smith Nolting and inspired by the look of downtown buildings, was a major project for the Bemidji Downtown Alliance last year.

The $110,950 project was a joint effort between the city of Bemidji and the BDA, with the city investing $45,000 and the BDA raising the rest of the funding.

The arch project and other initiatives the BDA has worked on is to make the downtown the "heart of Bemidji," Vyskocil said.

Matthew Liedke

Matthew Liedke is the city, county and state government reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He also covers business, politics and financial news.

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