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'Jewel of the north country' doing well: Mayor Larson delivers State of the City address

Bemidji Mayor Dave Larson, right, delivers his first State of the City address Tuesday night at the city council meeting. City Manager John Chattin watches. Pioneer Photo/Bethany Wesley

The "jewel of the north country" is doing well during uncertain economic times, proclaimed Bemidji Mayor Dave Larson Tuesday night during the annual State of the City address.

Larson, as the city's new mayor, offered his first State of the City at the beginning of the Bemidji City Council meeting.

The speech acknowledged that 2010 was marked by "unprecedented budget reductions and cutbacks," but Larson said the city continues to defy state and national trends.

He noted that:

- While other regional centers have experienced declining sales-tax funds, Bemidji has had increases.

- The city's retail sector is growing. The new Menards store is set to open this year, as is the new site for O'Reilly Auto Parts.

- The Sanford Center opened in October and already has shown an impact on the local economy.

- City services have continued to be maintained, even enhanced, despite reductions in staff and reduced budgets.

Further, Larson said, new construction is continuing to advance the city's growth.

"When our tax base increases, we are able to increase our local tax levy without a corresponding increase in individual property taxes, as evidenced by reduced property taxes for most of our businesses and residents in 2011," he said. "We fully expect this trend to continue as more development takes place."

Development, particularly, is expected to occur in the south shore redevelopment area, which is anchored by The Sanford Center.

The facility has been open 2.5 months and has hosted more than 55,000 people who attended Bemidji State University hockey games, family shows, concerts, banquets and receptions.

"This new regional facility has something to offer everyone in the community and we hope to see many new and unique events there," Larson said. "If you haven't had a chance to experience this beautiful facility, plan on attending an event this year and see what The Sanford Center has to offer."

The south shore offers one mile of publicly owned shoreline and more than 30 acres of developable property for commercial and residential uses.

"Lots have already been sold and development will start taking place this spring, including the extension of the Paul Bunyan State Trail along the shore of Lake Bemidji," Larson said. "A new boat launch facility was also constructed last fall that will accommodate additional users.

"We anticipate new hotels, restaurants, commercial businesses and residential units will be built over the next several years, adding both amenities and tax capacity to our city."

Larson also highlighted the work done to advance Bemidji's theme as 'City as a Park."

A renovated Bemidji City Park was reopened this fall. The redesign cost $3.8 million, plus an additional $165,000 raised by local skateboarders, that resulted in a new four-field softball complex, hockey and ice-skating facilities, an 18-hole disc golf course, expanded and improve cross-country ski trails and a first-of-its-kind skate park.

Next up for improvements is expected to be the Lake Bemidji waterfront and North Country Park, which will be a new park along 30th Street Northwest.

Programming through the Parks and Recreation Department also has increased the visibility of the City of the Parks theme.

In 2010, programs offered increased to 36 - which is triple the offerings from 2009 - and participation in events more than doubled, he said.

The city also has been working to improve infrastructure throughout its neighborhoods, Larson said, noting that several city streets were reconstructed in the Nymore area and the Minnesota Department of Transportation expanded state Highway 197 to five lanes and will add a new U.S. Highway 2 overpass this spring.

The Bemidji Regional Airport last year broke ground on an $8.9 million expansion.

"When completed in 2013, we will have an expanded and remodeled terminal building, jet ways for boarding and exiting aircraft, a new parking lot and a remodeled fire substation," Larson said.

Looking ahead to 2011, he said the state's $6.2 billion deficit will continue to offer economic challenges for the city.

"However, we have been proactive in our budget process by estimating the impact of future reductions and accounting for them in our city budget," he said. "We hope that any reductions experienced fall within that estimate. If not, we will have to look at prioritization of city services and make service reductions as needed."