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Bemidji School District, Beltrami County leaders discuss common interests, issues

In what was dubbed an unprecedented meeting, Beltrami County and Bemidji School District leaders met Monday and cleared the air about the county's plans for land the school district leases from it.

The issue was brought up during an informal meeting held between Beltrami County commissioners and members of the Bemidji School District's Board of Education.

The district currently leases roughly 10 acres of a 40-acre parcel of county-owned land located directly west of the Bemidji Middle School campus for youth soccer programs. Bemidji Youth Baseball League leases the rest of the property for baseball programs.

But the future of this property came into question last year when commissioners entered into discussions with big box retailers that were considering developing the land, Superintendent James Hess said during Monday's meeting.

"We have a sizeable investment in that property," Hess told commissioners. "When it came up into question, we started scratching our heads and wondering how we would make up for this if all of a sudden it turned into ShopKo."

Beltrami County Administrator Tony Murphy told board members the county has not yet received a proposal from a developer interested in building on that land, but said there has been interest.

"Big box retail wants to be near Walmart," he said. "Until all of the land is exhausted near Walmart, the pressures are going to be there."

The property tax base of Beltrami County, Murphy said, could be boosted by having retail stores move in, but added that the county's intention is not to leave its partners "out high and dry."

"There needs a place for youth soccer, baseball and softball," he said. "At this point we have nothing to share with you."

County Commissioner Jim Lucachick assured school board members that the interests of the school district and youth recreation were its first priority when commissioners discussed development possibilities, and added that commissioners would not "throw the school district under the bus" when it came to negotiating with potential developers.

"I felt we were in unison with our county board in that we're not just going to take the big, flashy boxes coming to town to pay us a whole bunch of tax money," Lucachick told board members. "That would be good for our taxpayers, but we were adamant with those folks we needed a solution you all agreed to."

Having commissioners pledge to keep the school district in the loop regarding the future of the property is what board member John Pugleasa said he was pleased to hear.

"We're all neighbors in the same community," he said. "In the absence of that information, it becomes an issue. We take action or form opinions based on less-than-accurate information. That illustrates why these kinds of meetings are important."

Only two of six topics on the meeting agenda were discussed at the meeting. Students First, a collaborative initiative that involves numerous community organizations and leaders striving to help students create their own success plans and for each student to have access to a caring adult, was also discussed during the meeting.

Originating with "Bemidji Leads!" and facilitated by the Beltrami Area Service Collaborative and Headwaters Regional Development Commission, Students First embarked in a trial phase this year. The initiative received praise from both commissioners and school board members during the meeting.

Both entities plan to meet again in the near future to continue discussions on the topics of attendance issues, planning and zoning, health care and mental health services and redistricting elections.

School Board Chairwoman Ann Long Voelkner said it was due time commissioners and board members got together to talk about areas of commonality.

"I hope we are able to work toward better governance of the people, not only of Beltrami County, but also those in the Bemidji School District," she said.