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Hengel discusses proposed Minnesota Innovation Institute with Beltrami County Board

BEMIDJI – The proposed Minnesota Innovation Institute would not only address a skills gap between local manufacturing companies and the unemployed, but immediately create or retain more than two dozen jobs, according to Dave Hengel, executive director of Greater Bemidji.

At the work session of their regular meeting Tuesday, the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners were updated on Hengel’s plan for the facility.

The project is a collaborative effort between Greater Bemidji, Northwest Technical College, Bemidji State University and the Idea Circle Inc. – a self-described workforce development company based in Bemidji.

Hengel’s organization has already secured about $200,000 worth of money, space and equipment from Bemidji State and Northwest Technical College for the project. He was on hand Tuesday to ask for a total of $130,000 from the board, and to provide an update on the project’s path. Specifically, Hengel is negotiating for the purchase or lease of a building to house the facility. Those negotiations are private, and if a building is purchased or leased it would be the new home to Greater Bemidji, as well as two companies who have expressed interest in relocating there, Hengel said.

“If Greater Bemidji is able to own the building - I had people up here from the (U.S. Economic Development Association) last week - and they’re very confident that we can get the renovations all paid for by the E.D.A.,” Hengel said. “At that point, it needs to be public or non-profit ownership of the building.”

About 25 to 30 engineering jobs will be created or maintained by the project, should it go through, according to Hengel. The jobs will start out at $11 to $12 an  hour.

“When I hear machining and mechatronics, I see more upward mobility and living wage than perhaps an operator of a machine,” said District 1 Commissioner Jack Frost. “My concern, of course, I don’t think $11 or $12 an hour job is supposed to be able to have somebody buy a house or a new car.”

While those jobs could be immediate, education programs the facility would provide are the longer term goal. They would include training for mechatronics - a term for occupations that include mechanical, electrical and computer engineering skills. Mechatronics jobs, education for which would be provided by the facility, and jobs which could be available with companies involved in the project, pay between $55,000 and $70,000 annually, according to Idea Circle President Mary Eaton.

Certificate programs, educating 100 to 150 people each year, would help to round out resumes, Eaton said.

“We know in most companies, people come in with an electrical background and they need the mechanical balance. Or they come in with a mechanical background and they need the electrical balance,” she said. “We’re trying to make these (certificates) like Legos if you will, so people can stack them and put the pieces together.”

Hengel and Eaton were joined by John Centko, provost at Northwest Technical College, John Pugleasa of Beltrami County Social Services and Jim Russ, of Team Industries Inc.

“Personally my passion is, I’ve got four kids. Unfortunately not one of them is left here today,” Russ said. “They’ve all left the region. So my in is very simply to have some of our kids be able to have good paying jobs in this region.”

Hengel, in reference to development fund grants worth $150,000 that were handed out by the board in January, argued that the project is worth the county’s time, and money.

“When you made your development fund awards this year, I remember some of the board members said that you do have additional funds there, should a great project come up,” Hengel said. The board increased the amount of grants it handed out at their Jan. 15 meeting - from $100,000 to $150,000 - leaving $130,000 in the fund’s coffers. “I’m testing your appetite today to see whether this is that great project. I don’t need a response today, but I do want to get a feel because I’m negotiating, potentially, to own a building.”

District 2 Commissioner Joe Vene and District 4 Commissioner Tim Sumner suggested including the Northwest Indian OIC in planning the facility, with Vene expressing support for the project. District 3 Commissioner Richard Anderson stressed the importance of partnering with area businesses to ensure that the possible 100-plus certificate-earners at the facility match the amount of available jobs.

“When I see 100 and 150 annually, do we have jobs and people requesting folks on an annual basis?” he said. “It sounds like there is.”

District 5 Commissioner Jim Lucachick, who also sits on Greater Bemidji’s Board of Directors, expressed strong support for the project

“I think this falls within the definition and the categories of our development fund grants,” Lucachick said. “Politicians are always flapping their gums about making jobs. You all know my feelings about private sector versus public sector. I think this is a perfect definition of where the public sector needs to be involved, because you’re not going to get the private sector to try to make money doing this.”

Justin Glawe
Reporting on crime, courts and Beltrami county government. Follow me on Twitter @JustinGlawe.
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