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.
Editor's Note: This is the fourth 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.
Expansion was the theme for Bemidji’s fourth quarter century starting in 1971. For 75 years, the town had grown and developed a personality of its own, but much of that was centered around downtown Bemidji.
And while it had long been a destination for tourists and outdoor enthusiasts, Bemidji’s reach also expanded in the 1970s and ’80s as development moved from the city’s core.
The Paul Bunyan Mall opened in 1977 along what was then U.S. Highway 2 on the city’s northwest side, taking JCPenney out of downtown. The Bemidji Community Hospital and Bemidji Clinic built new facilities, leaving downtown for the northwest. Car dealerships moved out of downtown. Banks expanded to that part of town. Other new businesses sprung up on what had been the wooded outskirts. In the mid 1980s, the Highway 2/71 bypass was built, paving the way for Paul Bunyan Drive through the expanded northwest side.
Sid Sletten, who grew up in Bemidji and still calls it home after retiring as finance director at Beltrami Electric Cooperative, remembers quite a different scene on that stretch of road.
“From where the mall was built it was basically country going out to the Highway Host (now Super Buffet),” Sletten said. “There was no four-lane highway. The grain trucks came right through town. And it seemed like it took forever to get to Wilton.”
Larry Young, former city planner and retired economic development director, said the expansion added to Bemidji’s diverse economy.
“Bemidji has been blessed over the years with a fairly diversified economic base which continues today,” Young wrote in a chapter for the Beltrami County Historical Society’s upcoming book on the city’s 125 years. “It includes retail sales, manufacturing, timber processing, medical services, education, tourism and advanced telecommunications -- economic drivers that will continue to build a bright future for the Bemidji area.”
But after the Paul Bunyan Mall was built, while Young was still with the city, concerned downtown business owners paid him a visit.
“Literally the day the mall opened the downtown merchants came to my office in the city and said, ‘OK, Mr. City Planner, what are you going to do for us?’” he recalled. “That was the beginning of the downtown project.”
Spearheaded by the late Pat Campbell, owner of The Melody Shop on Third Street, a plan was developed to revitalize the downtown area.
“We got a group together and decided maybe it’s not just the merchants’ responsibility to make something happen,” Young said. “So we started looking at the city staff, the merchants and consultants that we worked with. It took awhile to get our ducks in a row, get money lined up. Once that happened it really changed the whole relationship between the downtown and the rest of the community, I think.”
The Downtown Development Authority (now Bemidji Downtown Alliance) was formed.
“Pat Campbell was the mother hen of the DDA,” Young said. “She had a lot of respect from the downtown merchants and the bankers. I give her a lot of credit. Also we were very fortunate that a young landscape architect had moved into town a couple years before the project happened, and that was (the late) Dick Rose. He aligned himself with Stewart Walker Engineering, and between Dick and Stewart Walker we had some really good engineers and landscape architects. The image of what you see downtown with the trees and planters, that was primarily Dick Rose’s vision.”
The vision began to become a reality in May of 1984 when a large crowd of townsfolk gathered for a groundbreaking ceremony.
“At the time we started that project there were 17 vacant storefronts downtown,” Young said. “The hospital and clinic had moved out of downtown. The bypass was under construction. They were really scared to death that downtown was going to go. When we got the project done it really turned things around for the downtown area. It put them in a much stronger position when the big boxes started coming in.”
Between the spruced-up downtown and the expanding northwest corridor, Bemidji became even more of a regional center.
“There’s no question that the downtown project brought a lot more people in from farther away,” Young said, “but the same thing happened as the mall opened up, too. The mall brought more people into the mall, but it also brought more people into the downtown area.”
Sletten agrees, adding, “I’ve always called Bemidji the northern hub of central Minnesota. People from Grand Forks are coming over, Brainerd, St. Cloud, Baudette, International Falls. It’s become even more of a hub because of the medical services.”
Ground was broken for the new Bemidji Community Hospital on Aug. 29, 1977, and it opened for business on Oct. 29, 1979. The new hospital had a medical staff of 25 and more than 350 employees. In December, 1981, a new corporation, North Country Health Services, was formed, operating North Country Regional Hospital, North Country Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, North Country Housing and the North Country Health Services Foundation. It remained that way until 2011 when NCHS merged with Sanford Health.
Meanwhile, the 1970s saw a period of real growth for the Bemidji Clinic. The number of physicians grew from 10 to 16 and the downtown building at Sixth and Beltrami became too small. If all of the physicians showed up for work on the same day, someone had to be sent home; there was not enough space for them. In December of 1979, 16 physicians moved into the new and present clinic building next to the new hospital. In 1988 it merged with the Fargo Clinic, and in 1998 its name changed to MeritCare, which eventually merged with Sanford.
Sletten has been in bands since he was a teenager, playing with Tomashock for three years, This Side Up for three years, and Power Play for about 30 years. He and his son, Michael, now run DMS Entertainment, performing at weddings, dances and other celebrations in the area.
“Up until the 1990s there were probably 15 places just in the surrounding area that carried live music,” Sletten said. “And people went to every place. It was amazing how many places had music. The Blue Ox, that’s where the Markham Hotel was, they ran music seven nights a week. The Holiday Inn ran music five nights a week. The Elks, Moose and Legion all had music on Fridays and Saturdays. It was just a matter of what you wanted to hear.”
Also during this time, Bemidji High School won its third state boys basketball championship (1974), the new Bemidji Middle School was built (1986) and Bemidji State was winning most of its 13 national championships in men’s hockey.