BEMIDJI-Bemidji staff and elected officials are considering how best to plan for the city's future. On Monday, they began the discussion on how community organizations factor into the process.

Over the past several weeks, leadership from the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, the visitors and convention bureau Visit Bemidji, the Bemidji Downtown Alliance and Greater Bemidji Economic Development, have been looking to form a "Bemidji Alliance."

The concept is to have the four entities work closer together and strategize for the future.

The Bemidji City Council, meanwhile, held a retreat Oct. 3 where they discussed the need for a comprehensive visioning and community engagement initiative.

During a council work session Monday, City Manager Nate Mathews said the idea of the Bemidji Alliance can coincide with the government's own strategic planning and initiative. To spur ideas on how the two can work together, Mathews shared research he recently compiled on what other cities, such as Minnetonka and St. Louis Park, have done as part of their own planning.

"In my discussions with the alliance, I've found that they're trying to do better in the jobs they have. There's value in that and I support that," Mayor Rita Albrecht said. "I'd like to have us look at these and see if there's some value here and, at some point, make the decision on whether or not the city should take the lead on this."

"All four boards have come together and said this is a great idea," Chamber President Deb Pfaff said. "Once you have that cohesion, you have a little bit more engagement. Whether we're focused on visitor experience, the business community or having vibrancy downtown, an alliance can easily partner with the city and do some of that visioning, and bring in some more partners."

Ward 1 councilmember Michael Meehlhause said such a collaboration could bring to light some challenges facing the city, too.

"Something like this, a community visioning process, can be an opportunity for groups involved to get a sense of what are some of the issues we're facing," Meehlhause said. "It's a chance to get the whole community on the same page, to see what some of the issues we're facing are, and how do we move forward together on them."

As the process is in an early phase, the council agreed to continue working on the subject moving forward.

Solar panel projects

Another agenda item discussed by the council Monday was in relation to solar power. During the session, Mathews said he's been in communication with Otter Tail Power regarding potential solar panel projects in the city.

Roger Garton, an energy management representative from Otter Tail, said Monday that the company is looking to make new investments in solar and want to build a few of the projects in the communities it serves. Otter Tail Power has identified two sites of interest for a solar project in Bemidji, one near the Sanford Center on First Street Northeast and the other west of Paul Bunyan Drive, just south of the Candlewood Inn and Suites hotel.

On the first site, Garton said there's potential for the city to participate and own a solar array that can offset electric costs through net metering. Net metering allows consumers who generate some or all electricity to use that electricity anytime, rather than when it's generated.

However, council members said a major issue is the valuation of the site in question. Ward 4 councilmember Richard Lehmann said during the discussion that he was unsure if the dollars in savings from the new energy project would be enough of a return on investment.

To give more time to research the financial matter, as well as the potential carbon footprint impact, the discussion was tabled for a later date.