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Retreat looks at planning for future

Becky Livermore, right, a member of the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board, makes a point during a retreat Wednesday evening involving the JPB and Joint Planning Commission. Also at her table were JPB members Richard Lehmann, mayor of Bemidji, and Joan McKinnon. Pioneer Photo/Bethany Wesley

The joint planning effort between Bemidji and Northern townships and the city of Bemidji has, by all accounts, been quite successful.

But on Wednesday, joint planners were asked if they were content to keep on doing what they are doing very well or take their work to the next level.

"You ought to feel great about what you've done, but it would be a crime to just cruise," said Cliff Tweedale, with the Headwater Regional Development Commission, who served as the facilitator for the retreat at the city's Public Works Facility.

The Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board and Planning Commission initiative now is in its second year of operation.

The effort has been hailed and awarded statewide for its innovation in facilitating cooperation and partnerships between the city and townships in regard to land use and annexation.

The JPC is a 12-member commission. The townships and city nominate members, who are then appointed by the JPB. The JPC makes recommendations to the JPB on land-use requests and development proposals that are filed with the joint planning office.

The JPB, an eight-member board composed of elected officials from the three governmental units, considers the recommendations and takes action on the issues.

Tweedale, comparing the joint planning office to a toddler, pointed out that the two bodies currently are reactive rather than proactive.

"You're walking now and saying a lot of cool things. You've just scratched the surface in your potential," he said. "You've got so much potential, it's untapped."

Are you the joint planning board or the joint zoning board, Tweedale asked.

"Zoning is not planning," he said.

Nicki Lemmer, a JPC member, said the success of the joint planning effort has made her hungry for an even more active role in planning for the future of the greater Bemidji community.

It was noted that planning is taking place, but not always at the JPB's table. Townships, for instance, have developed road plans for the future. And, the city has seen and considered plans for the future of BSU and potential impacts to neighboring residents.

Should that planning be done by the local governments or joint planning officials, Tweedale asked.

"I think what we have to recognize ... is that we're not trying to change a process. We're trying to change a culture," said Mel Milender, the planning administrator for the joint planning office. "It doesn't happen overnight."

Richard Slinkman, a member of the JPC, suggested that a Comprehensive Plan, a document that visualizes and describes officials' goals for development and redevelopment in the future, would be an asset for joint planners.

"Maybe our first goal should be to see if we can develop ... a Comprehensive Plan for the Bemidji area," he said.

Tweedale had urged the group to consider the tools at its disposal. Together, those in attendance listed multiple tools, such as the ordinances; staff members; and community partners such as the JEDC, HRDC, Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, Bemidji State University, the city and the townships.

Tweedale pointed out that in order for a Comp Plan to be developed, the JPC and JPB would need to use a combination of those tools.

"If you're going to build a robust future ... you're going to need more than a hammer," he said.

It is the governing bodies for the townships and city that have authority over transportation, housing and economic development, he noted.

"Your authority is a little bit limited," Tweedale said. "You have substantial leverage tools, but they have to be developed."

He suggested a scenario in which joint planning officials decide to name their top four issues and hold a "State of the JPB" address.

The media, of course, would cover that event and inform the public about the issues facing the community, Tweedale noted.

"Maybe it's this group's role to sound the alarm, to say, 'This is an important issue' and 'Let me show you the way,'" Tweedale said.

Participants were asked to vote anonymously on whether they wished to maintain the status quo or take the joint planning effort to the next level.

The vote was 18-1 in favor of moving it up a notch.

"They were excited about getting to the next level," Tweedale said in an interview Friday. "They're really excited to be a proactive planning, problem-solving force."

The next step, Tweedale said, will be a joint meeting between himself, Milender and Rita Albrecht, the city's community development director.