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New life for an old building? Northwest Indian Community Development Center looks to buy downtown federal building for housing, other uses

The Northwest Indian Community Development Center has applied to purchase the federal building, which the government is looking to sell. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI—After nearly 60 years, one of Bemidji's largest downtown buildings is being reimagined for new possibilities.

The General Services Administration announced last year it would vacate the Federal Building, located at Minnesota Avenue and Sixth Street. In response to that, the Northwest Indian Community Development Center has started looking into the possibility of turning the building into permanent, supportive housing for those in need.

Tuleah Palmer, the center's executive director, said the decision to pursue the building came through the center's work helping people rehabilitate into society, explaining that housing is the top issue for those trying to get stabilized.

"People who live in this area cannot get housing if they have felony backgrounds," Palmer said. "We just really had to look inward at our work and decide whether or not we were going to take on another layer of this work, which is to look at housing for people with many barriers."

The center recently received a $500,000 Bush Prize, given by the St. Paul-based Bush Foundation, to use for community innovation. While plans are still in the infancy stage, the center plans to put the funding toward purchasing and transforming the building.

The total cost to purchase and renovate the building is currently unknown. Nonetheless, Palmer said the Bush Prize funding would serve as a good starting point in the process to raise the needed amount.

Under the McKinney-Vento Act, the federal government gives homeless providers and local governments the chance to express interest in surplus federal facilities as part of the disposal process.

If there are no government entities or homeless organizations that want it, the building would be sold at public auction, according to Bemidji City Manager Nate Mathews.

"I think they've got a wonderful organization and a vision for the facility that's addressing needs in the community," Mathews said.

The center already has got a start on the process, too. It submitted an application—about 150 pages long—detailing what the Northwest Indian Community Development Center does and what kind of housing they would establish. The center expects to hear by March whether or not their goal for the building can move forward.

The Federal Building was built in 1960, and includes about 50,000 square feet, spread over four floors, or five if the basement is included. Palmer said she envisions the space being able to house about 20 families.

It also would include shared community space, as well as services on site and a marketplace for American Indian artists.

The federal building currently serves both the Bureau of Indian Affairs under the U.S. Department of Interior and the Indian Health Service, under the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. Matthews said the GSA originally estimated it would take two to three years to establish a new facility and vacate the federal building.

Jordan Shearer

Jordan Shearer covers crime and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. A Rochester native and Bemidji State grad, he previously spent several years in western Nebraska writing for the Keith County News. Follow him on Twitter @Jmanassa

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