Advances in technology, health care, recreation spark Bemidji’s last 25 years

The changing times have seen some Bemidji businesses come and go while others have risen to the occasion and persevered through a new consumer landscape.

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Sanford Health and North Country Health Services merged in 2011, creating Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota, a regional hub for health care. Submitted photo.

Editor's Note: This is the fifth chapter of five that chronicle the city of Bemidji's development since it was incorporated as a village on May 20, 1896. Each chapter covers a span of 25 years and was originally published in the Pioneer's Annual Report on May 22. Here you can find our printed section and here you can find the other four chapters.

With the rise of consumerism and the internet, the last 25 years have seen Bemidji demonstrate significant growth and interconnectedness with the world, placing it in a position of influence as a complex regional hub in northwestern Minnesota.

The changing times have seen some Bemidji businesses come and go while others have risen to the occasion and persevered through a new consumer landscape.

The unprecedented internet speeds of Paul Bunyan Communications’ GigaZone, along with the rise of social media platforms like Facebook, have also shown Bemidjians that the rest of the world really is just a click away.

RELATED: As northwest side developed, Bemidji became more of a regional center For 75 years, Bemidji had grown and developed a personality of its own, but much of that was centered around downtown Bemidji. The town’s reach also expanded in the 1970s and ’80s as development moved from the city’s core.
“We're seeing more people from more cultures, more nationalities, and different backgrounds moving to the community,” said Jorge Prince, Bemidji’s mayor. “The internet has driven so many different types of commercial opportunities, and plenty of people can now work from home that never could prior to that, which I think has also fuelled some of the diversity we've seen in our community. It really has connected Bemidji to the world.”


In the early 2000s, recreational opportunities became more plentiful with the city’s rejuvenated focus on developing and accentuating Bemidji’s parks, trails and natural resources.

Following a $3.3 million renovation in 2008, Diamond Point Park once again became the crown jewel of the Bemidji city park system after years of wear and tear left it in desperate need of an update.

“In the last 25 years, the city has made a very large investment in parks, trails and recreation, and I think we've seen the fruit of that,” Prince said. “Certainly, as I became a father and raised my kids in the community, I started really valuing using the trails, fishing on Lake Bemidji and being in any one of our 29 parks.”

Nate Dorr, who grew up in Bemidji and now works at the Northwest Minnesota Foundation, said the parks and trails are some of the city features he utilizes most. In 2010, Dorr spearheaded the Bemidji Skate Park, one of the first concrete skateboard parks in Minnesota. He said the project is one of his fondest memories from that time, as he helped give local youth a recreational outlet.

“The skate park has been really big because, in the past, people were getting tickets and skateboarding where they shouldn't be in public,” Dorr said. “They just didn't have a place that they could call their own in order to have that sense of identity.”

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The Bemidji Skate Park was built in 2010, giving youngsters another outdoor recreational option. (Pioneer file photo)

Prince said the city’s redevelopment of the lakefront around Lake Bemidji was a precursor to the development of the Sanford Center, which broke ground in April of 2009 and officially opened its doors in October of 2010. The venue was renamed from the Bemidji Regional Events Center to the Sanford Center after Sanford Health purchased naming rights.


Sanford continued to leave its mark on the community when Sanford Health merged with North Country Health Services in 2011 and created Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota.

“We went from having a smaller, more rural hospital and clinic to now hosting Sanford and all the different types of medical services that it's brought to our community,” Prince said. “We were always a hub, but I think we've really become a serious medical hub thanks to the growth of Sanford, which has been good for our citizens because now they can receive different types of treatment and supportive services, where before, maybe they had to go to Fargo or the metro.”

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The Sanford Center, which opened in October 2010, has hosted a variety of sporting events, concerts and community celebrations such as the Bemidji High School graduation. (Pioneer file photo)

A continued expansion of retail on the northwest side of town also sprung up, with popular big box stores like Target opening in 1996 and Walmart opening in 2002.

“To see development of the big box stores, it shows Bemidji really is becoming a regional economic center and retail center,” Dorr said.

However, with intense competition among big box retailers and the rise of online shopping, some businesses ceased to prosper in Bemidji. Paul Bunyan Mall saw a retail downfall with Kmart closing its doors due to poor performance in 2012 after 35 years of operation. Its closing marked the second large retailer in town -- Pamida was the first -- to liquidate that year.

On the opposite side of town, Bemidji’s downtown area flourished with small local businesses and restaurants taking up residence. Appealing to residents and tourists alike, they offered unique flavors, clothing and specialty items not found on the town’s more chain-centric northwest side.


“Our downtown went through a period of modernization, where you saw some of the more longstanding businesses that had been there leaving and new types of businesses taking their place,” Prince said. “I think our downtown has actually become pretty vibrant for a community the size of Bemidji.”

Dorr said places like Bemidji Brewing, which opened its doors in 2013, immediately encouraged a sense of community among locals.

“It’s a place for socializing and for people to meet each other,” Dorr said. “I think having a place like a brewery is that quality of life aspect where you're able to connect and build social networks. And for me, that's the place to go hang out.”

Various new events cropped up that motivated additional community togetherness. Some of them include the Bemidji Sculpture Walk in 1999, the Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival in 2006 and the Bemidji Blue Ox Marathon in 2013.

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The Bemidji Blue Ox Marathon, which began in 2013, attracts runners from throughout the region. In this 2018 photo, half marathoners run through Diamond Point Park. (Pioneer file photo)

Educational opportunities that brought youth together in new ways expanded in the area as well with charter schools like TrekNorth High School, Voyageurs Expeditionary School and Schoolcraft Learning Community all being founded in the early 2000s. Also during this time, the new Bemidji High School was unveiled. The old BHS was demolished in 2008, although one of its two main archways was preserved and is being resurrected on the new high school grounds.

“There is that sense of community identity because everybody went to that old high school for generations,” Dorr said. “I think seeing that school torn down gave us a sense of wanting to preserve things in our culture and our community.”


Bemidji State University, which celebrated its 100th year in 2019, has adapted to new technology in the past 25 years with expanded distance learning and updated majors based on changing workforce needs.

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Bemidji State University President Faith Hensrud speaks at a kickoff event for the school's 100th anniversary celebration. (Pioneer file photo)

While 2020 was a year of challenge for Bemidji -- and the world -- because of the coronavirus pandemic, it also marked the town’s first presidential visit, a landmark occasion that further illustrated Bemidji’s expanding influence in Minnesota and the country.

“Bemidji certainly has a heritage, and a lot of what's happened over the years has been built on that heritage. We stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us,” Prince said. “A lot of the work that was done decades ago really set the stage for much of what's happened in the last 25 years, and I'm thankful to those who have come before us and created the foundation that we've continued to build on.”

Bria Barton covers travel and tourism for Forum News Service and is based at the Bemidji Pioneer. A South Carolina native and USC grad, she can be found exploring Minnesota’s abundance of towns, food and culture. Follow her on Instagram @briabarton.
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