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Bemidji businessmen set lofty goal for townhomes

From the roof of the Sanford Center looking east, this image shows the 6.5 acres of land that is set to be purchased by Bemidji-based B&B Enterprises from the city of Bemidji. B&B Enterprises wants to develop 30 high-end townhomes on the property. A public hearing on the proposed sale is set for Monday. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer1 / 2
This image shows the location where B&B Enterprises plans to develop 30 high-end townhomes near Bemidji’s Sanford Center. A second phase of the project could bring as many as 20 additional units. Greta Lund | Bemidji Pioneer graphic2 / 2

BEMIDJI – As one developer proposed high-density apartment complexes, another was working to gel his vision of townhomes.

Neither plan stuck on its own.

But now, as Brian Freeberg and Bob Whelan joined together, their B&B Enterprises is poised to move forward on a plan to build 30 high-end townhomes on the south shore of Lake Bemidji.

“It’s been a really great partnership,” Whelan said.

B&B Enterprises has accepted a counter-offer from the city to purchase 6.5 acres of land northeast of the Sanford Center for $300,000. It also would have a five-year option on an adjoining 5-acre parcel to the south for no less than $100,000.

The public hearing on the proposed sale is set for 7 p.m. Monday at Bemidji City Hall.

“I am excited to see progress in this area. We want to see development in this area,” said Councilor Nancy Erickson. “(B&B Enterprises’) proposal certainly has great appeal.”

Active-living community

The project consists of two phases.

In the first, Freeberg and Whelan plan 30 high-end townhomes in a comfortable, inviting environment.

“Our plan is to create a townhome community … for a person looking to maintain, to develop an active lifestyle,” Whelan said. “They’ll definitely be higher-end townhomes.”

There will be sidewalks, curb and gutter, and access to nearby trails and waterways.

Plans for the townhomes, which still are being finalized, include a mixture of facades, including stone, and green spaces will feature lots of trees and a grand entrance, Whelan said.

It certainly is a different proposal from his plans a year ago.

Since 1999, Whelan has developed at least one apartment complex a year in Bemidji. In all, he has completed 27 such projects. He also has developed five multi-tenant commercial buildings.

About a year ago, he proposed a higher-density development of multi-family apartments for the southern lot east of the Sanford Center.

“We just felt it wasn’t quite the style and the kind of development that we were hoping for,” said Mayor Rita Albrecht, a member of the city’s proposal review committee that considers such land deals.

Meanwhile, Freeberg, a former member of that committee, had been eyeing the northern section for a possible townhome development.

But the city had long targeted that area for higher-density housing.

“The city had planned there about 150 high-rise condos that probably was not going to work, but they were sticking to it,” Freeberg said.

The city’s planned unit development for the entire south shore even predicted that as many as 75 to 150 units could be built there.

But that changed over time.

“It was more of paring the reality of the market to what they were going to accept,” said Aaron Chirpich, development director with the Headwaters Regional Development Commission, which has been working with Greater Bemidji to help the city market and sell south shore land.

“The vision was kind of penciled out of, if we could wave our magic wand, what would we want to see. Higher density brings a higher price (for land),” Chirpich said. “But what really carried the day is what the market’s going to demand.”

Freeberg, who developed the Irving Oaks subdivision about 10 years ago, built a speculative home to check the strength last year of the local housing market.

“I chose to test the market,” Freeberg said. “I built a spec home, a detached, free-standing home, but some of the construction techniques that we used in it would apply to our town-home development (in the south shore).”

The spec house sold in less than a month.

“It was a success,” Freeberg said.

A great partnership’

Freeberg and Whelan, after pursuing separate projects for a year, linked up several months ago.

Freeberg said they “figured it out,” that joining up made sense. Whelan said they “got together and visited about different things” which led to a formal relationship.

“I honestly don’t know the nexus of their partnership,” Chirpich said. “Just one day, Brian showed up and said, ‘I’ve got a new partner,’ and it’s Bob. We thought that was excellent, that it made a lot of sense for a lot of reasons.”

Forming B&B Enterprises, Freeberg, a retired Bemidji city engineer, and Whelan formally presented an offer to purchase land.

“It’s been a great partnership,” Whelan said. “He understands the bureaucracy part of the whole process, which, I, quite frankly, find to be the most difficult part. He understands all of that really well. I’m Type A and really combative. He’s had a really calming effect on me.”

For the second phase of the project, the 5 acres of land that the city would for five years give B&B Enterprises the right of first refusal, Whelan said it could accommodate as many as 20 additional townhome units.

“I think it’s great,” Chirpich said of the plans. “It fits with what the city was looking to accomplish on that site and I think it’s going to be good for Bemidji.”

"A lofty goal’

Albrecht said she was at a Bemidji State hockey game after the deal was reached when a couple approached her, ready to buy one of the units.

They first had been interested in the long-dormant Lake Bemidji Lodge project, which proposed a mixed-use development west of the Sanford Center, but still were interested in living along the south shore.

Whelan confirmed that upwards of a dozen people have contacted them to express interest. He actually hosted a pair of meetings Wednesday with potential buyers.

“To be perfectly honest, we haven’t nailed down a floor plan yet,” he said, alluding to the meetings. “Before we actually settle on an exact floor plan, we want to meet with these people.”

While the housing market appears to be strengthening, Whelan said any pre-sales would be welcome.

Ideally, he said they would like to break ground on the first four-unit building by the end of June.

“That’s a lofty goal,” Whelan said. “But we do think we can accomplish that.”

The first residents could then move in by September.

“I’ve said I was done (with developments) seven or eight years ago, but I just can’t get it out of my blood,” Whelan said.