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Parks paying off: Bemidji tops $9.8 million in collections for parks, trails

The snow conditions on the Bemidji cross country ski trails was adequate to poor. On Wednesday, John Arenz found out hitting some grass equals an immediate stop as he leaves Montebello Trail. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Ten years ago, many of Bemidji's parks were unsightly, and in some cases, unsafe. The area lacked the trail system that now makes the city a recreational haven.

All that changed - a half penny at a time.

Cornerstone parks feature diverse amenities and a trail network providing skiers, bicyclists, runners and other outdoor enthusiasts provide a myriad of opportunities year round.

For the past six years, merchants around town collected a voter-approved half-cent sales tax, the catalyst behind Bemidji's upgraded parks and trails.

In December, tax collections reached its $9.8 million goal, Bemidji Finance Director Ron Eischens said Wednesday.

"It certainly helped the city's park and trails image," Eischens said of the tax dedicated to improving Bemidji's recreational resources. "We've got a good variety of activities that can be done in each of the parks."

In 2002, city residents approved a half-cent sales tax to pay for parks and trails improvements. After several tries, Minnesota lawmakers approved the tax in 2005 and it took effect Jan. 1, 2006.

By a 44-vote margin in November 2006, voters approved an extension of the tax to fund an events center, leading to the construction of the Sanford Center. Again, state lawmakers OK'd the tax.

With the park obligation met, sales tax collections will now go to paying the $44 million in bonds used to build the Sanford Center. It's expected to take 30 years to pay off the event center bonds.

Marcia Larson, director for the city's Parks and Recreation Department, said the voter-approved tax was "instrumental in improving our entire park system."

Since its inception, total park revenues have topped $10.3 million, with the sales tax generating $9.8 million and interest, parkland dedication funds, a skate park donation and liquor fund subsidy adding more than $500,000 more.

In that time, the city has spent $9.3 million in parks and trail projects, leaving slightly more than $1 million for future improvements.

Council members chose to tackle the redesign and renovation of Diamond Point Park first. The project totaled more than $3.3 million, more than twice the initial estimate outlined in a 2001 parks plan, but officials wanted to establish Diamond Point Park as Bemidji's showcase, rather than work on several projects at once.

Bemidji won the 2007 Minnesota Preservation Award for its archeological preparation before the renovation, and then an Award of Excellence from the state's Recreation and Parks Association.

"That park set the stage for what could be done if you put money into your parks," Larson, the parks director, said. "That jump started everybody's interest of parks in the community."

The park is now widely used for a host of activities, including weddings, and meeting space is booked during the summer, Larson said.

City Park, completed last year, cost nearly $3.9 million.

In a 2011 resident survey, 36 percent of respondents said they visited a city park one to five times in the past year. Another 27 percent went to a park six to 15 times, while 31 percent said they visited Bemidji's parks 16 or more times. Five percent hadn't gone to a park. More than 85 percent rated the quality of parks, trails and recreational programs as good to excellent.

Without the tax, Larson said there's "no way we would have the park and trail system we do... The use has skyrocketed."

The remaining $1 million in park improvement funds is earmarked for North Country Park, Cameron Park, Paul Bunyan/Library Park and the Clausen Avenue Trail.

Going forward, though, the city will renovate parks in phases, and make changes on a smaller scale. About $750,000 of the remaining funds will go for changes at Paul Bunyan and Library parks.

Eischens said city's sales tax collections from 2008 to 2009 were up 5.2 percent and 2010 saw a 4.7 percent increase. Final numbers for 2011 aren't yet available.

"My surprise is that in difficult economic times, the city has had increasing sales tax collections," Eischens said.

Steve Wagner

Grand Forks Herald Editor Steve Wagner can be reached at 701.780.1104 and He joined the Herald in April 2013, and previously worked as editor at the Bemidji (Minn.) Pioneer and in several roles -- including news director, investigative reporter and crime reporter - at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. His reporting experience includes coverage of Dru Sjodin's disappearance and the federal death penalty case for her murderer, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., along with several investigative projects. In his spare time, Wagner is an avid runner and occasionally writes about his experiences on his blog, Addicted to Running.

(701) 780-1104