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Beltrami County Board: Hengel gives update on Greater Bemidji

BEMIDJI -- After just a few months as the executive director of Greater Bemidji (formerly known as the Joint Economic Development Commission), Dave Hengel has made a lot of changes in hopes of bringing businesses into Bemidji and the region.

Hengel addressed the Beltrami County Board at its regular meeting Tuesday.

"I like the direction, but there is no proof like proof," Beltrami County Commissioner Jim Lucachick told Hengel. "When you come back in a year and you have some proof for us, then you will get my support, but it does need some time, and it's not going to happen overnight, in three months (or) in six months. It does need some time to find out how this new direction goes, and I am looking forward to it."

Hengel said he is confident in the changes that have been made but agreed that there is no proof yet that the changes will work.

"We want to be and we need to be the front door for accessing resources for our business and those who create jobs small and large in our community," Hengel told commissioners.

Hengel said Greater Bemidji is focused on supporting entrepreneurs, growing, retaining and attracting talent, and marketing the region.

As part of the changes, Greater Bemidji has trimmed its executive committee to be more entrepreneurial. Historically, the county has had a place on the executive committee, but the standing committees have been eliminated and the process of electing board members is being redesigned.

To better make use of its time, Greater Bemidji has added consent agendas to get more people involved instead of just hearing updates in a roundtable discussion format, Hengel said.

"We are trying to be an organization that moves fast, acts fast, is open, listens to people and tries to be a little more accountable to the goals that we are going to set forth," he said.

Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks said a problem with the meeting format is that people leave meetings early, either because the meetings are too late, or because people talk too long, causing other voices to be forgotten.

"People vote with their feet, and it is my responsibility as executive director to make sure that there is substance there and they are making a difference by being there in that room," Hengel said.

Greater Bemidji has the support of 50 businesses and public organizations in the region, and Hengel hopes it will achieve long-term success.

Among the current projects Greater Bemidji is working on is Kelliher Forest Products, which received funds from the Headwaters Regional Development Commission and the Northwest Minnesota Foundation to help the company rebound after a fire that put it in jeopardy.

On the south shore, a purchase agreement is in place for a Country Inn and Suites with an attached Buffalo Wild Wings and is now pending a development agreement from the city. Hengel said there also has been some preliminary talk about building a townhome development east of the Sanford Center.

Hengel said Greater Bemidji is also working with the Water Institute of Northern Minnesota and Bemidji State University to create a business plan for water research and testing. The topic was discussed during Tuesday's meeting, and the board carried a motion to allocate $20,000 a year to Environmental Services for the program.