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Rail Corridor development stays on track

The Rail Corridor development area just off downtown Bemidji. (Pioneer file photo)

BEMIDJI—An effort by the city of Bemidji to turn an old railroad corridor into a modern housing neighborhood is still chugging along.

During a work session Monday, the City Council chose to move forward with Port Consulting, a division of the St. Paul Port Authority, on redeveloping the site. The area in focus is located south of the city's current downtown, and is bordered by existing rail lines, the Mississippi River and Irvine Avenue.

Since starting on the project in 2017, Port Consulting has presented two reports detailing the community's housing markets, environmental reviews, redevelopment options, tax base projections and the site's cultural history. The first presentation was in March of last year, and the second in August.

Following a discussion in November, however, the City Council opted to wait on any decision to continue, with considerations for other projects and also the anticipation of new council members after the general election. Monday was the chance to bring the consultants back, said City Manager Nate Mathews.

"We needed a long conversation and we wanted to make sure to have a thorough, deliberative review of this with a new council, and I feel we had that," he said. "We asked the council if they want to carry on with the project and have Port Consulting's assistance, and the council decided yes."

The need of a firm such as Port Consulting and its partners comes from the corridor's history as an industrial site. In decades past, the area was home to gas stations and a coal gasification plant. The land was later purchased by the city in 2003 for utility work.

Based on its industrial history, Mathews said any development will have to follow land treatment efforts, which could cost more than $1 million.

"If we don't have grants, we won't' be able to do this project," Mathews said. "Because the pollution cleanup alone, with soil mediation, comes between $1.5 million and $3 million."

Because of the cost, the council authorized Port Consulting to create a plan for submitting a cleanup grant application to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. According to Mathews, a grant from the MPCA would cover 75 percent of project costs.

Mathews also said the total for infrastructure projects would come to an estimated $519,000. To assist with those costs, the council also directed Port Consulting to seek a redevelopment grant through the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

The total to continue contracting with Port Consulting for the grant process will come to $235,740, and some of the costs can be reimbursed by those grants. Mathews said the city has spent $63,264 so far on Port Consulting's services.

"We need to do further assessments for the site's cultural aspects, environmental concerns and infrastructure needs," Mathews said. "We're going to do that over the next few months, get costs together, and then get grant applications out."

Matthew Liedke

Matthew Liedke is the city, county and state government reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He also covers business, politics and financial news.

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