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Community orgs shift strategies, pull together in midst of pandemic

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The Northwest Minnesota Foundation announced on Sunday that their office will be closed to the public until April 6. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- The headquarters of many Bemidji community organizations are either closing or simplifying lately, but the work is ongoing.

While the coronavirus pandemic hasn't reached Bemidji, local organizations have all been making preparations and switching to alternate modes of operations. The Northwest Minnesota Foundation, for example, announced that it had closed its office Monday and will remain closed until April 6.

However, the staff for the foundation will continue working remotely. In a statement, the foundation offered an online directory, www.nwmf.org/who-we-are/our-team , to stay in touch with the staff as work continues.

"We are closely monitoring developments related to the COVID-19 pandemic," President and CEO Karen White said in a statement. "The health and well-being of our staff, partners and communities are vitally important to us. We are committed to doing our part to slow down the spread of the virus. We will be reaching out to our partners to learn more about the needs throughout the region and looking at response options."

Meanwhile, the Headwaters Regional Development Commission office will be open, but with a limited staff.

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"Right now, we're not shutting down things, but we're having multiple people work remotely and will have more of a skeleton crew around," said HRDC Executive Director Tim Flathers. "There may be times where the office isn't open, but we don't have an absolute schedule on that."

According to Flathers, there was a board meeting scheduled for Thursday at Beltrami Electric, but the cooperative had closed its meeting room. As a result, the HRDC will hold a meeting at its office, with several people participating electronically.

"Some of the things we're doing in terms of smaller group type work won't be impacted immediately, but as it comes to larger groups, bigger meetings, they'll be postponed," Flathers said. "I know we value our staff, we value all of the people we work with and this community. So we need to be cognizant of all those things as we make our decisions moving forward."

The business community

In another corner of Bemidji's downtown, organizations are working to help the business community weather the current storm. According to Greater Bemidji Economic Development Executive Director Dave Hengel, meetups hosted by the organization's LaunchPad program have been canceled for the time being.

However, Hengel said the LaunchPad's co-working space at the Mayflower Building, 102 First St. W, will remain open. Additionally, membership fees for the LaunchPad, which allows for 24/7 access to the Mayflower Building, will be cut in half because of the increased need for remote working.

Greater Bemidji is also a member of the Bemidji Alliance, which also includes Visit Bemidji, the Downtown Bemidji Alliance and the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce. According to Hengel, the alliance is developing a collective response with input from the business community to help regional companies.

Because of the pandemic, though, the Bemidji Alliance was forced to postpone a March 19 kick-off event to share information about a visioning effort for the community.

Another event canceled because of COVID-19 was Bemidji Day at the Capitol, an annual event by the Chamber where officials and community leaders travel to St. Paul to lobby about local issues. Chamber Executive Director Abby Randall said she's working on a contingency plan, though.

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"The event is unfortunately canceled, but we worked so hard on narrowing our priorities and listening to other entities, so we're going to be doing a little bit of virtual lobbying for Bemidji," Randall said. "What I'm working on is creating a PDF of Bemidji priorities and the other entities will submit their PDFs, and I'm going to be sending that to all of the legislators at the capitol."

Randall also said the Chamber is continuing to gather resources for members and will try to offer as much assistance as possible.

Supporting citizens

At the United Way of Bemidji Area, Executive Director Denae Alamano said an emergency fund has been established to help with the situation.

"We want to support access to food, emergency needs and the elderly, as well as agencies that will have unexpected shortfalls as they have to cancel events," Alamano said. "We already have quite a bit of support, which is exciting. We've received $20,000 so far in the fund."

According to Alamano, there have also been several calls from residents hoping to volunteer.

"Because of health concerns, truly the best thing people can do if they want to support is donate," Alamano said. "So many places are having to close or be short staffed, and may not be getting the funds they need to operate, like Adult Day Services."

To support the United Way, visit www.unitedwaybemidji.org/emergency-fund , or call (218) 444-8929.

Another location partially closing but still operating is the Bemidji Community Food Shelf. According to Executive Director Mary Mitchell, starting this week the food shelf will be closed on Fridays, meaning the facility will only be open Mondays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

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"We're also going to a different distribution method," Mitchell said. "We're no longer having people come into the building. We will have volunteers go out to the parking lot and give people their boxes that are pre-packed. They'll get a variety of items, but unfortunately won't be able to choose."

Mitchell also said the food shelf is hoping some residents will still be available to volunteer.

"We have many elderly volunteers, who by all rights are concerned about the situation and some have said they're not comfortable to continue," Mitchell said. "So, we're seeking people from the community who have time to come in and help us pack and distribute.

"It's going to be pretty basic, but we want to make sure we're available to serve our community during this difficult time," said Mitchell. "We plan to continue to operate and we're all hoping for the best. We're thankful for our volunteers, our customers, and we want everybody to be safe."

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