BEMIDJI -- As Paul Bunyan Communication's footprint continues to grow in northern Minnesota, the cooperative is starting a building project this summer to have a proper facility for that expansion.

On Thursday, the Bemidj-based co-op announced the construction of a 27,000 square-foot customer service and technology center in Grand Rapids, with an opening expected in late spring 2020. The member-based non-profit expanded its fiber optic network to the Cohasset and Grand Rapids areas in 2004, but it has only leased spaces for its employees so far.

The first office in Grand Rapids for the cooperative was in a leased mall space from 2005-2008. To meet growing customer demand with expansion in Itasca and St. Louis Counties, Paul Bunyan relocated to its current office, which will stay open until the new facility is finished.

The back exterior of the planned Grand Rapids location for Paul Bunyan Communications. (Submitted rendering)
The back exterior of the planned Grand Rapids location for Paul Bunyan Communications. (Submitted rendering)

"There are several things having us go down this path," said Gary Johnson, Paul Bunyan Communications CEO and general manager. "One is to consolidate our staff and operations. We do have some separation between our field technicians working at a facility in Deer River and our service folks at the rented space in Grand Rapids. We can consolidate our staff all together, and for the first time, be in a facility that's owned by our cooperative."

Estimated at $7.5 million, the new tech center will remain as the only other physical building location for the cooperative other than its Bemidji headquarters.

"These are our two core locations, and there's nothing on the drawing board now to do any additional locations. But never-say-never," Johnson said. "We've seen a lot of growth in that area, in Grand Rapids and the broader region. So, this building will help us accommodate that growth. We've done a lot of expansion of services now in that area, and I expect that to continue."

In total, Paul Bunyan has a regional fiber optic network with 5,500 square miles throughout Beltrami, Cass, Hubbard, Itasca, Koochiching and St. Louis counties.

"As you look to the east, Itasca County does fairly well in the areas we serve. . . continuing to St. Louis County, though, there's a drop-off," Johnson said. "St. Louis County is one of the most challenged counties in the availability of broadband. That's where we're feeling the pressure and opportunity to continue what we're doing, trying to provide communication services to those who don't have it. This building helps us be poised to do that continued expansion work better, because it's closer to where the continued need is."

As a whole, the cooperative employs nearly 140 people, with about 20 in the Grand Rapids area. Depending on customer growth, Johnson said the number of Grand Rapids area employees could increase in the future.