BEMIDJI -- While Bemidji's downtown and the city as a whole has its share of vacant buildings, development appears to always be in motion as empty locations continue to be filled.

The timeline on filling vacant buildings can vary structure-to-structure, though. At 200 Paul Bunyan Drive S, on the banks of the Mississippi River, the former Pamida building sat vacant from February 2012 through 2018, when St. Michel Furniture and Floor Covering moved there.

The transition for St. Michel was a short one, as it exited its former downtown location, 123 Beltrami Ave. NW. Since moving out of its former location, another furniture store, Frizzell Furniture Gallery has moved in.

St. Michel's isn't using all of its new building, with 12,000 square feet of space still available for lease.

Smaller spaces such as these are more common in Bemidji's downtown. Some examples exist close by Frizzell's new location, including two open spaces for lease adjacent to Giovanni's pizza, as well as the former Senor Patron restaurant at 128 First St. W.

Another recent vacancy is 401 Beltrami Ave. NW. The space was recently FroydTech, an arcade offering virtual reality games, which opened in 2017 and closed earlier this year. Blocks away on another end of the downtown is another vacant building at 305 Park Ave. NW, once T.Juan's restaurant.

Vacancies in the area often don't last too long, though, according to Bemidji Downtown Alliance President Annie Butler-Ricks.

"I'd say we try to track when there are openings downtown, and as we're tracking that, it always seems like there's talk shortly after about the next thing coming in," Butler-Ricks said. "Places, overall, aren't staying vacant for really long periods of time, so that's going quite well."

A recent example is the former Tim Hortons at 100 Paul Bunyan Drive S. The coffee chain opened in fall 2017, but closed in May of this year as the result of litigation between the company and the local franchisee.

However, earlier this month, Dairyland Operations LLC announced it will convert the building into a Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins, with an opening expected in the first quarter of 2020.

The former Tim Hortons restaurant location in downtown Bemidji will convert to a Dunkin' and Baskin-Robbins in the first quarter of 2020. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)
The former Tim Hortons restaurant location in downtown Bemidji will convert to a Dunkin' and Baskin-Robbins in the first quarter of 2020. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)

"We do have open commercial space downtown, and I think there's a lot of opportunity," Bemidji City Manager Nate Mathews said. "A lot of our tax capacity growth has been in commercial reconstruction. We've been seeing rising house values, but there's also commercial re-investment happening."

Downtown and beyond

Building openings aren't limited to the private sector, either. One of the largest structures in Bemidji's downtown is the federal building at 522 Minnesota Ave. Built in 1960, the 50,000 square-foot structure is home to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service.

However, in recent years the General Services Administration announced those agencies would be leaving the building and relocating to other areas of the city. According to Mathews, the city was contacted about potentially using the facility first.

"We were approached by the GSA, which usually tries to work with the local government to establish whether there's a need for that building, but the city didn't have a need for it," Mathews said. "Right now the GSA is looking to conduct a public sale. The tenants right now are tentatively set to move out in March 2020 and a sale will follow in late spring or early summer 2020."

There has been talk of the building being used for housing and helping curb homelessness in the area.

Outside of the downtown area, Bemidji has some other open spaces, such as the former Northern Inn at 3600 Moberg Drive. Closed in 2007, the property is owned by T&K Development, which is managed by Todd Lowth of Bob Lowth Ford. According to Lowth, there aren't any plans for the building at the moment.

The former Northern Inn, located at 3600 Moberg Dr. NW, near the Bemidji Regional Airport. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)
The former Northern Inn, located at 3600 Moberg Dr. NW, near the Bemidji Regional Airport. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)

In other areas, though, some vacant locations already have plans for new tenants. One example is the structure at 1313 Paul Bunyan Drive NW, which previously housed Gander Outdoors.

In October, the Bemidji Gander Outdoors closed, about two years after re-branding from Gander Mountain. The grocery store chain ALDI applied for a conditional use permit for the location, with the intention of occupying 22,000 square feet of the building.

The rest of the 14,700 square feet available in the building, constructed in 1982, will be available to another tenant. Construction is expected to begin in spring 2020 with completion by the end of next year.

Close by, at the Paul Bunyan Mall, the 56,392 square-foot space once housing the Herberger's store also has plans for a future tenant.

"As of now, we have a couple different companies looking at the space," Property Manager Scot Snitker said. "We anticipate it will probably be in spring before we have the start of construction. I don't know at this point which entity that will be. It's vacant for this Christmas, but I can guarantee it won't be next Christmas."

The Herberger's closed in April 2018, creating another vacancy for the mall, which over the past few years had just filled another space. In 2012, the Kmart store at the mall shut its doors, leaving more than 96,000 square feet of space available.

In April 2015, 55,000 square feet of space was filled when Hobby Lobby opened a location at the mall. Then, in September 2016, Kohl's opened a 35,000 square foot store at the mall, taking up the rest of the available space.

Like the mall, major anchor tenants are just as important in Bemidji's downtown, and Butler-Ricks said the area has been fortunate in not having vacancies in that regard.

"I do know there are many of those long time restaurants and stores we have that anchor our downtown," Butler-Ricks said. "Those are great, and it's great when we do get new things for people to enjoy. I think our downtown is special in that regard."

"We have a lot of people who are very happy with our downtown," Mathews said. "It's refreshing to many people to see how good of a downtown we have, because it's not always the case in Greater Minnesota communities."