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Bemidji Regional Airport Authority abruptly ends marketing presentation

Bemidji Regional Airport Authority members ended a economic development strategy presentation Wednesday when they discovered it had little to do with the airport.

Tanya Korpi of Korpi Strategic Communications was about two-thirds through her PowerPoint presentation on pursuing economic development in the Bemidji area with a unified voice when Commissioner Jim Lucachick stopped her.

"This is a much larger discussion," Lucachick said of the presentation, which was billed on the Airport Authority agenda as an update on a marketing project.

Korpi started with a general discussion of what a community needs to do to market itself to attract businesses. More specifically, she said there are too many groups in the Bemidji community with the responsibility of attracting new business.

"There are too many groups in Bemidji trying to do the same thing. I keep asking, 'who's in charge?'" Korpi said. "I'm hearing nothing. The buck doesn't stop anywhere."

Bemidji needs to determine what is unique about itself and then seek those companies that would profit from that fit. "There may be only 10 or 12 companies in the world, but if it's the right fit, you could get nine of them."

She was in the middle of her recommendations when Lucachick stopped her.

They included creating a marketing alliance of all major stakeholders or an economic development steering committee responsible for clarity of the message of economic development for the region, hiring an economic development specialist to determine Bemidji's unique marketing aspects, or create a single portal for site selection.

"My question," said Lucachick, who has only been on the authority since January, "is did the Airport Authority give Ms. Korpi direction to go this way or was it Van?" He referred to Airport Authority Executive Director Harold Van Leeuwen.

Van Leeuwen said it was his idea, to carry forward a previously failed "Grow Bemidji!" marketing effort. "'Grow Bemidji!' died," he said. "It failed."

The Airport Authority was a funder of "Grow Bemidji!", as well as several other community groups. The airport's interest was in attracting aircraft-related businesses to its new Jobs Opportunity Building Zones site.

The campaign consisted of mass mailings to firms asking them to reply for more information. The packet of information included a Paul Bunyan-sized plaid shirt for the CEO to hang on his wall.

The campaign provided no results, and the Airport Authority ended its relationship with the consultant handling that. Van Leeuwen said his direction to Korpi was to take marketing a step further, with Korpi suggesting working on a few companies that would thrive in Bemidji's uniqueness -- whatever that is.

The airport annually receives money for marketing from the state, and last fall Airport Authority members mulled briefly about spending it on radio advertising.

Korpi called it "bizarre" that the authority would consider purchasing radio advertising without first having a strategy. "Why would you spend money on that?"

After Lucachick made several attempts to find out what Korpi's presentation had to do with marketing the airport, other commissioners began to have second thoughts.

":This is above our realm or belief," said Airport Authority Chairman Marshall Froyd. "This presentation is getting away from us. ... We need it a little more narrow and more selfish for the airport than the community."

The original committee that set up "Grow Bemidji!" which included the Airport Authority has not met since the program end, Van Leeuwen said. "I don't see another group doing this. Is this something we could be a champion of and move it forward to a larger group?"

"We need marketing to improve the airport's ability to grow, but this is good for Larry for his box of tools," said Airport Authority member Roger Hellquist, referring to Larry Young, executive director of the Joint Economic Development Commission, who attended Wednesday's presentation.

Part of Korpi's presentation did include an update on the Bemidji Regional Airport's new Web site design, slated to go online in April. The site will have tabs for the airport's JOBZ site, to Delta Airlines, local hotels and resorts, and links for potential businesses seeking economic development information.

"I see the airport as a key player, this effort it must be strategically aligned to promote the airport," said authority Commissioner Jack Frost.

"You get rid of the airport" in economic development planning, Korpi said, "you don't have much to talk about."

"With all due respect, I think we need to close this meeting and send this big picture plan to a different group," Lucachick said. "I signed up for the airport, and while this is not a bad idea, it is the bigger picture."

"This is a discussion for a another meeting," Froyd said, accepting Hellquist's motion to adjourn the meeting even though there were still several items on the agenda.

Earlier, the Airport Authority:

- Approved a resolution that local funds spent on the $8 million airport terminal project be allowed to be paid through bonds yet to be issued on the project. In most cases, there is a 95/5 match of federal versus local funds.

- Bond debt service will be about $77,000 annually, paid from passenger boarding fees, which are about $91,000 a year.

- Approved a task order for the project to pay project consultant HNTB up to $434,000 for the project.

- The Airport Authority will hold a special meeting April 30 to consider a selection panel's recommendations for construction awards for the terminal and adjoining jet bridge.

- The airport's long-awaited new VOR navigation system will become operational April 5.

- Delta will begin in April three daily flights to and from Bemidji, moving it to four flights daily in July. Only two flights daily are planned for Saturdays, with Delta revisiting that monthly.