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Bemidji School District renovating former bank building as Downtown Education Center

The former First National Bank Bemidji building located downtown is now the Downtown Education Center. Remodeling and construction is expected to be complete in mid- to late August. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

The former First National Bank Bemidji building located at 502 Minnesota Ave. N.W. is now the Downtown Education Center.

The center will host the Bemidji School District's Alternative Education Center, Adult Basic Education, Bemidji Youth Learning and Working programs and special education staff offices.

According to Chris Leinen, the district's director of business services, the demolition phase is now complete and renovation projects began this week.

Three new bathrooms have been put in upstairs. Plumbing will be added throughout the next two weeks. The basement has been cleared out.

"The work crew is painting and cleaning as they go," Leinen said.

Leinen said the district has a target of completing the Downtown Education Center by Aug. 16 with an absolute deadline of completion by Aug. 31.

"How fast we can actually move those programs in will be some struggle because we have several different programs moving in there," he said. "Our priority right now is to move in the (Bemidji Youth Learning and Working) program first."

BYLaW's current lease at 1741 15th St. N.W. ends Aug. 31.

"The building is going to look really nice," Leinen said. "It will be interesting to see how it functions. There's a lot more space there than I think some of these programs are used to. That will be a nice problem to have."

In May, the Bemidji School Board approved a resolution to create a lease purchase financing agreement with Wells Fargo in the amount of $1,100,000 for the purchase of the former bank building.

The agreement allows the district to use lease levy dollars to purchase the building plus make improvements throughout the next 15 years. The total project will cost $1.1 million, which includes the purchase price of $700,000 and $400,000 worth of improvements.

The Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board voted July 15 to grant the district a Conditional Use Permit for the former bank building. The facility would be limited to 34 employees and 36 students.

As conditions of the approval, the district must combine the four parcels of the site and record the parcel combination with the Beltrami County Auditor, receive final approval by the city of Bemidji for an on-street bus loading and drop-off zone and ensure that all new signage is in accordance with the JPB Zoning Ordinance. The school district also must provide 11 off-premises permit parking spaces.

While the move will save the district dollars by not having to levy dollars used to pay rent, there are many details that have yet to be addressed.

At a listening session held before the school board meeting Monday, board member Steven Johnson and Superintendent James Hess met with a teacher who expressed concerns about some staff offices being moved to the Downtown Education Center.

According to Johnson, the teacher felt the new office location would separate some district staff from others who work together with special education students.

"There will be some changes that will occur with the move and coordinating them is important," Hess said at the meeting. "Making sure that staff have access to each other and fostering good communications is important. It's going to be different."