BEMIDJI -- A group of Bemidji area residents came together Wednesday to leave the past behind and lay the foundation for a new wellness center initiative for the community.
The new effort was launched by Sal and Beth Di Leo of Lake George, who wrote a Letter to the Editor in the Pioneer in September describing the importance of a community center facility. In the letter, the two also expressed hope that an effort to bring about a community health center, which has been attempted in the past, could be resurrected.
"The purpose of this meeting isn't to say anyone was right or wrong," Sal Di Leo said at Wednesday's meeting. "What we want to do is see if we can find like-minded people to talk about this again and see if we can make this happen. This is about exploring what it would take to make it happen."
In the mission statement shared at the meeting, the goal of this effort is to "set up a Northwest Minnesota Community and Wellness Center Initiative." The statement also emphasizes "taking a fresh look" and that there is "no right way or wrong way."
"We're not going in with preconceived notions of what it's going to be or what it's going to look like," Di Leo said. "We want to look at how we can finance it. How we could sustain it. That's the main factor with any project."
Ideas of a wellness center for the Bemidji community go back several years. In 2014, another local effort was started with the idea of bringing a YMCA to the city. Proponents of the YMCA concept were eventually brought into a conversation about another wellness center idea in 2017.
In 2017, Greater Bemidji Economic Development and Sanford Health announced interest in creating a wellness center and sports complex for Bemidji, estimated at $27 million. The plan was to construct a 175,000 square-foot facility on Sanford Bemidji's campus, with one section for wellness, another for a multi-use sports facility and a third for two ice sheets.
To build the project, Sanford Health was planning to commit $10 million, while another $10 million would be fundraised and roughly $7 million was to be covered in debt financing. Once finished, the idea was to establish an amateur sports commission to bring in tournaments and events to the facility, and, in turn, generate revenue.
As part of the concept, the proposal was to possibly fund the commission with a special use tax, such as a hospitality tax. However, concerns were raised by Bemidji city staff, as using the tax dollars in that fashion conflicted with Minnesota statute. A few months later, the proposal was shelved indefinitely.
Di Leo said he would like this process to be a whole new start, though, and said transparency will be a priority.
"It's not going to happen over night, and nobody wants this to be on a timeline," Di Leo said. "It will have to get done as it gets done, so it gets done right."
Moving forward, Di Leo said those interested in the effort should contact him at email@example.com. Di Leo also said a URL has been reserved with the intention of creating a website.