BEMIDJI-How best to address the issue of homelessness in Bemidji, as well as public transit, were two questions put to the two people looking to lead the city.

The two candidates running in the Bemidji mayoral election had plenty to discuss Tuesday, with a forum featuring a wide range of issues and topics.

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The forum, organized by the nonpartisan Citizens for an Informed Electorate group, included incumbent Mayor Rita Albrecht, 63, and former Beltrami County Commissioner Joe Vene, 79, who's challenging for the seat.

One of the questions asked of the candidates Tuesday eliciting some of the most in-depth responses was in relation to the city's homeless issue.

Mayor Rita Albrecht
Mayor Rita Albrecht

"We've done a little bit already, but I recognize we haven't done enough, because there's still people on the streets," Albrecht said. "What we have done is participate in the Center City Housing project to build the Park Place Apartments, a 60-unit complex for chronic homeless folks. When I talk to my city police chief, he says that's been a great help to them. We've also supported The Wolfe (a nightly homeless shelter in winter), which has helped."

"We have to have a safety net for the homeless," Vene said. "We have The Wolfe center, and we have the Center City Housing for people who're struggling with alcoholism and homelessness. Whenever and wherever we can, let's have a safety net for the homeless."

Vene also cited his time on the Beltrami County board, where he advocated for a veterans home to serve northern Minnesota to be located in Bemidji.

"I fostered and established the veterans home initiative, and that veterans home is soon to be a reality in Beltrami County, in Bemidji, which will help serve and accommodate homeless veterans," Vene said. "That will be another asset to our community."

Albrecht said she's met with other community leaders to continue working on the homelessness problem, as it has had an impact on the Bemidji Public Library.

"I recognize our library has a lot of pressure on it, because people need a warm place, which the library is, and it has WiFi," Albrecht said. "I brought some folks together at this room over here, including the Chamber, Greater Bemidji, representatives from Park Place, the county and others in the community to talk about some of the strategies. I'm hopeful that the Chamber and Greater Bemidji are able to implement some of those in conversations with downtown businesses."

Another subject Tuesday was the future of public transit for the community. Vene said the elected officials should go to the people using the service.

"I think there is a need for a reliable and consistent public transit system," Vene said. "I think we have the basis of that right now (referring to Paul Bunyan Transit). We need to listen to the ridership this time to determine how that service might be improved, and how the riding public relying on transit could be better served."

Joe Vene
Joe Vene

"This is an issue that's been bantered around at Bemidji Leads for the last six to nine months," Albrecht said. "While we do have Paul Bunyan Transit... that public transit is not a fixed route, it's a dial-a-ride service. Folks who don't have transportation... they can dial-a-ride to go to the mall, or get picked up from the mall, but they won't make a stop at the grocery store on the way home. So, let's figure out what our people without transportation need. This is really important for our workforce."

Other questions asked to the mayoral candidates included what qualities they think are important in holding the office, how they would handle a situation where they differ on a topic with another council member, how to have a working relationship with the surrounding townships, as well as the possibility of a parking ramp in downtown Bemidji.

Two more forums from the Citizens for an Informed Electorate are scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 1 at Bemidji City Hall, 317 Fourth St. NW. The first at 6 p.m. will center on Beltrami County District 1, while the second at 7:30 p.m. will be for Minnesota House Districts 2A and 5A. The forums will also be broadcast on First City cable TV Channel 2.