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Greater Bemidji pitches business boost proposal to Beltrami County commissioners

BEMIDJI -- A burgeoning economic development initiative could bring in new, high-paying jobs to the Bemidji area this year, Beltrami County Commissioners learned Tuesday.

Commissioners on Tuesday were asked to consider contributing $150,000 to Greater Bemidji to help further the Minnesota Innovation Institute (MI2) project.

Dave Hengel, executive director for Greater Bemidji, said the economic development organization is working right now with four potential business expansions in the Bemidji region. While he could not name the businesses, Hengel said he would be meeting with a Twin Cities-based company today.

“It is really an exciting time to be in Bemidji, in the region and the county,” Hengel said. “I’ve got four different companies coming to town right now that are not in the region. They’re looking to locate to Bemidji.”

Hengel explained that MI2 is a group of companies and organizations, including colleges and universities, working together informally and organized through Greater Bemidji. There were five companies originally; now there are almost 20 with a focus on employee recruitment, placement and retention.

Progress of MI2 involves creating training and business development facilities. A Haas Technology and Education Center (HTEC) would be certified and supported by Haas Automation and include a showcase facility and labs for automation, metrology, gauging, print and engineering and design.

Hengel said in researching the Bemidji area’s manufacturing industry, he found one of the biggest concerns is a lack of people trained in the trades.

“We have a middle class issue in large part because we have a very weak manufacturing base,” Hengel said. “Very healthy economies have about 20 percent of their employment, good economies have about 10 percent of their employment in manufacturing. We have 3 (percent).”

Hengel reported that 141 people have been trained to date through MI2 with an 80 percent job placement rate. Trainees studied CNC machines, mechatronics and introduction maintenance. The lowest hourly wage Hengel has heard of from a graduate who has been placed is $11.75. The highest is $27 an hour for a position in mechatronics.

BSU was one of the first supporters of the MI2 program and others have stepped up to the plate, as well. Northwest Technical College has offered to provide a 20,000 square feet of space for the HTEC center and area high schools are being included in plans.

People receiving training include existing workers and students. MI2 would not only benefit students in Bemidji colleges and high schools, but those in Blackduck, Kelliher and Red Lake as well.

Bemidji Schools Superintendent James Hess said he’s been directed by federal and state departments of education to help get students ready for not only college, but also career ready. Hess said eventually he would like to see high school seniors graduate with a completion certificate they can present to potential employers.

“To me that’s a lot better than reading “Moby Dick,” Hess said. “Moby Dick” and “Canterbury Tales” are nice, but you know what, this means employment. This means a job and not tomorrow, but today.”

In addition to Beltrami County, Hengel has met with the Neilson Foundation and plans to approach the city of Bemidji, BSU, Northwest Technical College and area foundations and companies regarding future funding for the MI2 project.

Hengel said that at a future county board meeting he plans to ask for $40,000 in consolidated funds to support 50 eligible clients in MI2 training and placement. Hengel reported county funds would leverage $120,000 in state dollars. Hengel’s future request for $150,000 will be for development of the HTEC center at Northwest Technical College. That investment, Hengel, predicts will leverage more than $3 million in private corporate investment, foundation support and federal funding.

Another economic development project Hengel noted was the Woody Biomass project at the former Ainsworth Facility, which he said looks like it is going to happen. The project would bring in several new and expanding businesses at the site that would each develop different products.

Crystal Dey
Crystal Dey covers crime, courts, tribal relations and social issues for The Bemidji Pioneer in Bemidji, Minnesota. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey has worked for the Echo Press in Alexandria, Minnesota, The Forum in Fargo, North Dakota, The Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida, the Hartford Courant in Hartford and West Hartford News in West Hartford, Connecticut. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.
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