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Events center a 'go': Pawlenty's veto pen spares Bemidji project

Gov. Tim Pawlenty used his line-item veto pen Monday to slice more than $200 million from the Legislature's public works bill -- but spared the Bemidji Regional Events Center.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty used his line-item veto pen Monday to slice more than $200 million from the Legislature's public works bill -- but spared the Bemidji Regional Events Center.

The Republican governor's work, which now is law, provides for $716.8 million in bonding, cutting out $208.17 million with 52 line-item vetoes from the DFL-controlled Legislature's $925 million bill.

Pawlenty, in a press conference Monday that included outstate reporters via telephone, said the Legislature's bill exceeded a traditional debt service limit by $100 million.

"One of the things I'm disappointed the Legislature did not do is to say 'no,'" Pawlenty said. "Somebody has to be fiscally responsible, and that job falls to me. Saying 'no' to these communities or to these projects is difficult. Each and every one of them is difficult in varying degrees.

"But the starting principle has to be the state of Minnesota has to live within its means, and somebody has to look out for the taxpayers," he said. "The Legislature obviously is not."

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The governor, who once called a number of events and community center proposals "hockey rinks" in clouding their future in the bonding bill, only line-item vetoed one, design funds for a Mankato Civic Center/arena expansion that would include a performing arts center and Minnesota Women's Hockey Exposition Center.

Left in the bill were $20 million for the Bemidji Regional Events Center, $38 million for a Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center expansion, $10 million for relocating the Crookston Arena and $6.5 million for a St. Cloud National Hockey Center expansion. All four projects include hockey facilities.

"There are four so-called hockey initiatives that are in the bill," Pawlenty said. "One is in Crookston. In Crookston, they have a flood issue. The hockey arena is very, very close to the river, and moving the arena and rebuilding it is part of a flood mitigation plan because they need to put a flood wall where the hockey arena is."

The Duluth facility is home ice for the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, Pawlenty said, and a promise to provide money for expanding the DEEC has been long-standing. "I felt it was important to keep that commitment, and it is a university-based project, in part."

Both Bemidji State and St. Cloud State also field NCAA Division I hockey teams.

"As to Bemidji and as to St. Cloud, these are institutions or facilities that the higher education systems are either full partners in or the lead advocates in, saying they're very important to the future of St. Cloud State University and Bemidji State University, so we allowed them to go forward," Pawlenty said.

"Not because I think it's so vitally important that we have hockey, but they're saying that the community, the culture, the future mission of the public university more broadly would be impacted if they weren't able to move forward," he added.

Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, said she was the first to notify officials at the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce that the governor had left the events center in the bill. A whoop went up from those gathered to await word, she said.

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"Ever since we heard the governor start to label these types of projects as hockey rinks, we knew that his initial intent was to have this funding go on the chopping block," Olson said.

"I would give all the credit to the community of Bemidji which has really worked hard to make sure that the governor got the message that this was not just about a hockey rink," she said. "This is about economic development for one of the poorest areas of the state."

In terms of BSU's hockey program, the Bemidji Democrat said the community wasn't just asking for the state money because it involved saving the only Division I sport within a 100 miles, "it would have been one of the byproducts of losing this funding."

Olson said after she'd heard Pawlenty had left the events center in the bonding bill, she penned a note she planned to deliver to his office thanking him for remembering his commitment to support the events center.

"I'm extremely grateful to everyone in everyone in the Bemidji community who worked so hard to make this happen," Olson said. "I'm looking forward to being part of the process now in turning our attention to the local level and working there to make sure we are united as a community as we go forward with this."

The state money will account for about 30 percent of the total construction costs, with the city gaining legislative approval a month ago to extend the city's half-cent sales tax for 30 years to pay for remaining costs.

Assistant House Majority Leader Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, also lauded the Bemidji community on keeping the pressure up for something the city has struggling to fund for more than a decade.

"It's quite an accomplishment for our area, we've been working on it for so long," said Moe, who was snowed in at home Monday. "We've been working on this project for years."

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Successful funding is a testament to hard work and perseverance, Moe said. "Tying that whole south shore together really achieves a center of gravity of Bemidji, and the way it will tie into downtown redevelopment plans. There are real big things for Bemidji's future and we've made some very solid steps to get us there."

Moe also credited Olson, who he said "made a real difference this year, bringing the Senate strongly on board."

The events center, he said, "is going to create a lot of jobs and provide a boost to our economy."

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