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Pioneer Editorial: Project will require a commitment

With the city of Bemidji population topping 13,000 for the first time, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, and the immediate surrounding area at 27,489, a focus on "smart growth" is a must.

Bemidji has been chosen one of 32 communities - out of 354 that applied - for the Environmental Protection Agency Sustainable Building Blocks program. Bemidji's involvement in the EPA initiative will focus on "smart growth to produce fiscal and economic health." The EPA consulted with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Transportation in developing the Sustainable Communities project. City Manager John Chattin applied for the program at the suggestion of Councilor Rita Albrecht.

Representatives from Bemidji will take part in a daylong training session in May or June to learn about implementing specific sustainability tools to protect the environment, improve public health, create jobs, expand economic opportunities and enhance overall quality of life.

Bemidji scores well in some of these categories, such as environmental protection. For example, catchment basins have long prevented dirty street runoff from reaching Lake Bemidji. Tree planting, America in Bloom and city-as-a-park are priorities.

The outlook for the area is less rosy in other categories. The County Health Rankings report puts Beltrami County near the bottom in social and economic factors that relate to health. The county reports 7 percent unemployment, as compared to 5 percent statewide, and 24 percent of children are living in poverty - twice the state average.

Improving public health more directly would also be a goal with 36 percent of adults smoking and 28 percent rate as obese.

So, although the EPA project is commendable, and Bemidji's participation is a hopeful sign, it will take more than a one-day seminar to turn the trends around.

For any success to hatch from the Sustainable Communities project, public input and commitment will be key requirements. Perhaps the community could organize along the lines of "Bemidji Leads!" to give the project impetus, set specific goals and measure the outcomes.

In any case, improving the quality of life will require long-term focus, investments of time, energy, determination and, probably, funding. Otherwise, the project will become the proverbial flash in the pan.