BEMIDJI-Despite months of work to form an alliance within the community, Bemidji recently has seemed more like a house divided.
It was most apparent at a special City Council work session last week where, in front of a large crowd, frustrations rose to the surface. Originally a discussion to be focused on the future of Visit Bemidji, the local visitors and conventions bureau, the session eventually expanded to how city government itself collaborates with other entities.
Those groups include Greater Bemidji Economic Development, the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, the Bemidji Downtown Alliance and Visit Bemidji, which recently partnered to create the "Bemidji Alliance." This alliance, organizers say, is about focusing on the future, with the goal of steering the community to more prosperity over the next decade.
Specifically, the Alliance is planning to initiate a visioning process, setting community objectives to strive for by 2030. While the effort started with benign intentions, though, hammering out formal agreements has been a strenuous process.
The root cause comes from Visit Bemidji, which contracts with the city to promote and market the community as a tourism destination. Funded by a 3% lodging tax, and because of its association with a local government, bringing it under the Alliance umbrella has made the process more tricky.
"Over the time the Bemidji Alliance has developed, there's been a series of 'tripping hazards' that have emerged because of Visit Bemidji's status, since it manages public dollars," Bemidji City Manager Nate Mathews said.
The most recent example arose during the Alliance's first meeting, held May 17. At the session, members of the Alliance's leadership were introduced to proposed confidentiality and/or nondisclosure documents.
Because of concerns over elected officials or public figures signing these types of documents, though, this subject was tabled by the Alliance.
Still, Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht, a member of the Alliance's leadership, sought the counsel of City Attorney Alan Felix to review the document. After evaluation, Felix released a memo to city officials and other civic leaders urging caution around these types of agreements, based on the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.
According to Ward 2 Council member Mike Beard, though, the language in Felix's memo went too far.
In a statement read at the meeting, Beard said Felix "goes on to state about the Bemidji Alliance: 'the notion of a secretive organization with involvement and participation by public officials is in and of itself counter to public policy.' To call this secretive with leadership from esteemed businesses and organizations is a travesty."
Beard, who also labeled the city government as "dysfunctional" in his statement, later told the Pioneer he fully stands by that message.
"I sincerely think it needed to be said," Beard said. "I didn't say it to be mean. I said it to be constructive. It certainly wasn't an attack on any individual; it was more the process overall. I think the paranoia of power was part of the statement I made there. That the city, or people in the city, are threatened in some way, shape or form by the Bemidji Alliance."
While that meeting's passionate conversation was about the recent push to form the Alliance, though, friction in the community goes back even more.
The Wellness Center debate
Last year the city and private entities again found themselves at odds over a proposed $27 million wellness and sports complex. Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota and Greater Bemidji partnered to push the initiative, with the idea to construct the facility on Sanford's campus.
Public discourse started in late 2017 with a series of meetings. However, by May 2018, the project was shelved indefinitely. To proponents, the roadblock for the project was a lack of collaboration and cooperation with the city.
City officials, though, noted a lack of adequate communication as well as a set of legal criteria making the process unworkable.
This is in reference to the amateur sports commission proposed by the project's leaders. The concept was to create a hospitality tax to establish the commission, which would organize tournaments, promote youth sports and help facilitate the rental of arenas.
City legal counsel argued that Minnesota statute wouldn't allow a tax to work in such a function, though.
"I've observed that the Bemidji Alliance sprouted following the wellness facility not happening," Mathews said. "The fact is there are more regulations for us to be tuned into. The City Council rightfully needs to have a handle on how Visit Bemidji is going to be working with a private board."
"The premise of the Alliance makes a lot of sense," Albrecht said. "As always, the devil is in the details. The work for this partnership agreement has been going on some time, and the city had to push quite a bit to get the agreement in a shape consistent with our agreement with Visit Bemidji."
Ensuring a proper public-private partnership
Visit Bemidji eventually approved entering into an agreement with the Alliance to work together, yet it's a looser, non-partnership agreement. Along with this caveat, Greater Bemidji Director Dave Hengel said steps are being taken to accommodate Visit Bemidji's status.
"We're never going to do something illegal, and we're never going to put our public officials in a spot that's uncomfortable," Hengel said. "I think the city did the right thing on Monday, giving some time to think about it. I think it was also good to see the rest of the Alliance members stand strong and be there for each other."
Beard had a similar sentiment on the subject.
"It of course has to be legal, and I wasn't questioning Al (Felix) to look into the legality of it," Beard said. "It was more the scope. I don't think Bemidji Alliance wants to do anything illegal. They're a new organization and they're trying to find their way."
"I always think it's better to sit down and talk about it," Albrecht said. "If we have some concerns or differences, let's talk it out before throwing down the gauntlet."
Bemidji Alliance's plans and hopes
Hengel agreed when talking about the need for the community to communicate about shared interests and goals.
"When you focus on the negatives, people go to their corners, and things get uncomfortable," Hengel said. "I am getting nervous about our ability to come together, so I'm hoping our visioning of the community can get there. I remain hopeful. The mayor offering to be on the (Alliance's) task force was a very important thing. My goal is to get past the tensions and concerns."
Once fully set in motion, the Alliance is looking to create a process called Envision 2030 to set goals and strategies for the future. To do so, Hengel said the Alliance will likely hire a firm to assist in the visioning process, and provide an independent voice.
Because Greater Bemidji has agreed to lead the effort, Hengel said the organization will raise the funds necessary to hire the facilitator.
"You set your target out there, and find some of the steps we need to do to get there," Hengel said. "We'll know we're successful when the city, county, the Chamber and my organization are working on these strategies and move in the same direction toward 2030."
The visioning process, Hengel said, will span everything about the community, too, from economic development to helping improve the social safety net. The Alliance is scheduled to meet on a quarterly basis.
"Collaborating together is a good thing," Mathews said. "I do think it's a neat concept and in my experience in other communities, you can get a lot done when you work together like this."