Bemidji delegation tells lawmakers in St. Paul about need for events center

ST. PAUL - A regional events center would make Bemidji a full-service regional center, Mayor Richard Lehmann testified here Tuesday before the House Capital Investment Committee.

ST. PAUL - A regional events center would make Bemidji a full-service regional center, Mayor Richard Lehmann testified here Tuesday before the House Capital Investment Committee.

The panel was called by Chairman Dan Dorman, R-Albert Lea, basically to draw testimony on state bonding projects left out of the DFL-controlled Senate bonding bill approved last week. Missing from the bill was $3 million in planning and design funds for a Bemidji regional events center, as well as similar centers in several other cities, which also testified Tuesday.

"We provide many services, from education, to medical, to government center and other facilities," Lehmann said. Bringing an events center, which would have Bemidji State University's NCAA Division I hockey program has its major tenant, is key to Bemidji reaching the next level.

To bring home the point, Lehmann asked former long-time BSU men's hockey coach R.H. "Bob" Peters to testify.

The current John Glas Fieldhouse, BSU hockey's home for 40 years, "was never intended to be an events center, which is what it has been used for." Peters said. Area reservations use it for powwows, graduation exercises are held there, as well as home and sports shows.


A regional events center is the top priority among 17 "destiny drivers" of "Bemidji Leads!", Peters told the panel. "We're not going to sit here and wait in Bemidji, to wait and see what the future brings to us."

An events center would be the regional events center for north-central and northwestern Minnesota, he said. "Bemidji is the go-to city. People look to us for leadership and expertise, and that would be the crown building for us in northern Minnesota."

When Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-St. Paul, asked where people in Bemidji now go to attend a major venue, Lehmann said 125 miles away in Grand Forks. N.D. "We are unable to attract at this time those types of events that are going to larger venues than we currently have in the city of Bemidji."

Kelliher also asked about the estimated annual economic impact of a regional events center, which Lehmann said would be $15 million.

"This project has broad community support," testified Rep. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji. "Not just the community of Bemidji, but the surrounding communities have stepped forward and recognized the dramatic need we have for a regional events center in Bemidji."

Dorman took testimony from more than 40 people on a slew of projects either dropped from the Senate bill or cut drastically. Senate Capital Investment Chairman Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, defended his action on regional events centers by saying one couldn't be funded without funding them all, which would expand the bill further than the $990 million approved. That bill is more than GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty's $811 million in borrowing. The House has yet to put out its bill, which is due April 3.

Part of the problem, Langseth admits, is the $33.7 million sought by Duluth for its Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, which is a venue for University of Minnesota-Duluth hockey.

Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson told the House panel that the project "is important to northern Minnesota and Minnesota as a whole." The state would pay half of the $67 million upgrade to the DECC, with city voters recently approving a three-fourths of 1 percent increase in the city's food and beverage tax.


The project has community support, Bergson said, as the tax referendum passed 61 percent to 31 percent. That the DFL Senate didn't include the project "floored me," he said. The upgrade is needed so UMD hockey isn't playing "in the oldest and smallest in the WCHA." The project is in Pawlenty's budget and House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, pledged House support, Bergson said.

"I'm optimistic and remain hopeful it will be in the (House) bill," said Dorman. "This surprised me the most" that it wasn't in the Senate bill.

Similarly, Bemidji's project is also in the governor's bill and has Sviggum's promise in the House. And Bemidji voters will be asked this fall to allow the city's half-cent sales tax go toward regional events center construction when it is done raising monies for parks and trails improvements.

Also testifying were Marshall officials who seek $12 million in state bonding for a multi-purpose facility to be located on the Southwest Minnesota State University campus and serve as its football venue as well as a regional events center. Food company Schwan's is donating $5 million to the $17 million project.

"This would be a regional significant force," said Southwest State President David Danahar. Schwan's CEO Larry Pittman said the regional events center would "invigorate an entire region. ... This events center would serve the entire southwest Minnesota region."

The facility would provide 4,500 seats for concerts and 3,000 more in an upper terrace.

"A billion dollars and no room for you," Dorman said of the Senate bill.

In a meeting of leadership from both chambers two years ago, Langseth said he couldn't do a bonding bill target "because there is a need for a lot of process," Dorman said. But the Senate passed the bill in three days with no testimony, he said.


"I was moved and compelled by Sen. Langseth on good process," he said, but the bill was heard in less than 20 minutes in Langseth's committee. "I thought we ought to have public testimony for the good, bad and the ugly before we put out our bill."

Langseth, in an interview, said the House should put out its bill rather than pick apart the Senate bill. And, if it is to contain items like the regional events center, he asks what the GOP House would then cut to make room for them.

Red Lake School District officials also testified to the House panel on Tuesday. Requesting $55 million for myriad school projects on the Red Lake Reservation, Pawlenty has included $10 million and the Senate approved $15 million.

Monte Hammitt, construction consultant, said the school district would be happy with the $26 million recommended last week by the House Education Finance Committee to complete Red Lake High School and Middle School projects. The district got $18 million in bonding last year, with Hammitt saying bids will go out April 13.

"I told the committee I would be back and back and back until we got what was sufficient for the Red Lake schools," Red Lake schools Superintendent Stuart Desjarlait testified about bonding requests he's made since 2002. "One of the benefits of bonding money invested in my schools is it is a big investment for the state in future years."

A priority of the district is an adequate building for students to come, Desjarlait said, adding that mold in the High School closed the school for 35 days in 2002. Better schools increase graduation rates, he added, with 92 graduates in 2005 and 82 expected this year, but nearly 200 kids have enrolled in elementary schools since 2000. Last year, the birth rate was 180 kids.

The bonding would replace buildings built in 1949 and 1956 "which are inadequate in square footage," and pose health and safety problems, he said.

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