Flathers reflects on a 38-year career with Headwaters Regional Development Commission

Tim Flathers has enjoyed working with communities in the five-county region the HRDC serves. He is especially proud of the work the organization has done with housing, including Conifer Estates in Bemidji, a 20-unit development for homeless families.

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Executive Director Tim Flathers will retire from the Headwaters Regional Development Commission at the end of June. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- When Tim Flathers interviewed for a job with the Headwaters Regional Development Commission in Bemidji, he thought it would be a good place to begin his career.

“I really had a great feeling about Bemidji,” Flathers said. “It just felt welcoming and relaxing. Everything about it was really cool.”

Nearly 38 years later, Flathers will retire on Wednesday, June 30 as executive director of the HRDC. He has led the organization since 2013.

Flathers said his wife, Julie, encouraged him to apply for the position in Bemidji. Both were from Iowa, and Julie’s family vacationed in northern Minnesota for many years. When Tim was hired as a community development planner with the HRDC, the couple thought they might only be here for a short time before moving on.

“We talked about getting a couple years of experience and looking at options,” he said, adding that Julie was beginning her career as a nurse. “She found her niche as well, and we never talked seriously about moving. It just seemed like it was a really good fit for both of us. There are a lot of people who share that story. One of the things that really appealed to us was being close to the college. We came from a college town, and we intentionally purchased a home near the college because we liked that whole vibe of being around that energy.”


They raised their two daughters in town, and now enjoy visiting them and spending time with their eight grandchildren.

Tim has enjoyed working with communities in the five-county region the HRDC serves. He is especially proud of the work the organization has done with housing, including Conifer Estates in Bemidji , a 20-unit development for homeless families.

“I do value the outcome of having the housing built,” he said, “but I think what I value more than anything is the collaboration it took to make that happen. I had to have really strong support from a variety of players, including the city. The city was amazingly supportive, which doesn’t always happen when you’re trying to serve that kind of population. Red Lake and Leech Lake both master leased five units and that was essential. It was a win-win, but we had to have a good trust relationship to be able to make that work well.”

He also appreciates the relationships inside the HRDC office.

“You don’t do anything on your own,” Flathers said, “We have a really strong collaborative spirit. I talk to people from all over the state all the time. I just smile sometimes, because I don’t think everybody has this. I really believe we are special here and we can achieve things.”

One of those colleagues is Dave Hengel, who worked with Flathers for a quarter-century before becoming executive director of Greater Bemidji Economic Development.

“Despite his quiet demeanor, Tim is passionate about providing everyone in the region safe, affordable housing,” Hengel said. “Looking around Bemidji, Tim's fingerprints are on so many different projects -- from housing developments to land use and comprehensive planning to the creation of the Joint Planning Board. He is equally passionate about the small towns dotting north-central Minnesota.”

Ryan Zemek, who will succeed Flathers as executive director, has worked with Tim for 13 years.


“As a boss, he always led by example and was quick to praise others and downplay his own contributions on successful projects,” Zemek said. “Because of Tim’s leadership, the HRDC is recognized statewide as an expert in developing affordable housing. The results of his work have led to the development of dozens of single-family homes and several multi-family facilities that have provided safe, affordable housing for families across the region.”

Dennis Doeden, former publisher of the Bemidji Pioneer, is a feature reporter. He is a graduate of Metropolitan State University with a degree in Communications Management.
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