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Study says housing a key component of developing rail corridor

The city of Bemidji is studying the best way to develop an area off downtown known as the rail corridor. Pioneer file photo

BEMIDJI—More information is needed to understand how feasible it is to restore the area near downtown Bemidji known as the rail corridor.

However, one fact already clear to officials is that the market will determine what is developed at the site.

According to a marketplace study presented at the Bemidji City Council meeting Tuesday, the site has the potential for 34 units of townhouses and two apartment buildings. But other information gathered in the fact finding process, though, shows the market would also support commercial uses in the area.

The study presented by Monte Hilleman of the Saint Paul Port Authority shows that townhouses and apartment buildings would be the most probable types of development in the shortest time frame.

"The marketplace study found that housing would work there, and we've heard anecdotally that there is interest for retail and office space, too," said Hilleman, the agency's senior vice president of real estate development. "We were charged with what realistically could be built, but ultimately, the market will tell us what is going to be there."

The rail corridor is a former industrial area spanning 14 acres off the immediate downtown area, bordered by existing rail lines, the Mississippi River and Irvine Avenue. The site was purchased by the city in 2003 to install a sewer system.

The Saint Paul Port Authority was contracted by the city last summer to assist in planning the potential redevelopment of the corridor. Tuesday's presentation was the second made to the council by the agency, the first coming in spring.

In the latest report, agency representatives also noted that archeological, environmental and engineering data was gathered. However, Hilleman said after the meeting that more work is required in some aspects.

"Further archeological and environmental investigation is needed, so there's more on-site soil work that will be done so we can refine a plan for a cleanup," Hilleman said. "For a cleanup plan like this to get approval from state agencies, it has to be pretty informed."

Hilleman said the authority will have a proposal ready in the next few weeks and will return to the council in October. The next step would be applying for grants to assist with the development.

"The Port Authority outlined for us the remaining gaps in the data," City Manager Nate Mathews said after the meeting. "We have really good numbers on civil engineering related to street work and utilities. So, we just need to finetune those other aspects further and wrap up a master plan. Then there can be council deliberation on moving ahead with grant applications."

According to Hilleman, the city is in excellent position to apply for and receive state contamination cleanup and redevelopment grants.

If the council were to move ahead with applying for grants soon, Hilleman said the amount of grant funding would be known by about June 2019.

"If that happened and there was a private sector partner onboard to build stuff, the construction season of 2020 would seem reasonable, assuming the market keeps going the way it is," Hilleman 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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