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Visit Bemidji’s future sparks debate

BEMIDJI -- Ideas and frustrations about the future of Visit Bemidji were laid out at a special Bemidji City Council work session Monday, with one member calling the situation a sign of government dysfunction.

The conversation stems from a number of recent happenings with Visit Bemidji, such as the impending retirement of Executive Director Susan Goudge and the hiring of her replacement, as well as discussion over how large the board of directors should be and the bureau joining the newly formed Bemidji Alliance. The latter is a collaborative effort of four community entities, including Greater Bemidji Economic Development, the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, the Bemidji Downtown Alliance and Visit Bemidji.

The four groups have been wanting to work more closely together, especially on a visioning process to set goals for the community to reach by 2030. However, the process has had to navigate legal requirements, as Visit Bemidji operates via public dollars.

Although Visit Bemidji operates as a non-profit organization, the visitor and convention bureau is funded through a 3 percent lodging tax to help promote and market the city and region as a tourist destination.

As a result, the language in Bemidji Alliance documents was changed to allow Visit Bemidji to enter into a non-partnership agreement with the other three entities.

Then, on Friday, May 17, City Attorney Alan Felix raised concerns over Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht and other public officials signing confidentiality and/or nondisclosure documents to be part of Bemidji Alliance’s leadership. Felix noted in a memo the concerns were based on public officials being subject to the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.

In his comments Monday, Felix expanded on his earlier written statement.

"Nobody from staff is saying the Bemidji Alliance is a bad thing," Felix said. "Collaboration is the name of the game. How we do this is the trick sometimes... Visit Bemidji administers public tax dollars and they have obligations in their contract, including open meeting requirements. My concerns are over the 'how,' not the 'what' or the 'why.'"

Dissatisfaction with how the process has played out so far was brought forward by Ward 2 Council member Mike Beard, though.

"To Visit Bemidji, the Bemidji Alliance, and the citizens of Bemidji, I personally apologize for this dysfunction," Beard said as he read from a prepared statement. "These people here tonight (Bemidji Alliance and Visit Bemidji stakeholders) volunteered to make Bemidji a better place, and some in government have done everything in their power to undermine them because of paranoia. I will personally have no part of it. I support Visit Bemidji to remain separate from the city, and I support the Bemidji Alliance to unify and collaborate."

At the City Council’s meeting on May 6, a motion was made, and later withdrawn, to dissolve Visit Bemidji as it is and shift the three staff members to city employees. An idea behind the motion was to make the three city staff, allowing them to receive benefits ultimately making it easier to attract and retain talent in those positions.

Another part of the motion was dissolving and creating a new board. This part of the motion was based on a broader discussion on what the appropriate size of the board should be. Visit Bemidji's board was last expanded from nine to 14 in 2016.

As part of his statement, Beard said he was skeptical of issues with the board and how it impacts Visit Bemidji's operations.

"For several years their outgoing executive director has come before the council and annually talked about Visit Bemidji's progress," Beard said. "Monthly, at City Council meetings, we've heard our council members who represent Visit Bemidji's board discuss regular meetings. In the last three weeks, now, we've heard the same council people explain that the sky is falling at Visit Bemidji."

"I disagree that this is wrong-headed, or that we're saying the sky is falling," Albrecht said. "That's not what we're saying. What I've heard is that there's frustration at the Visit Bemidji board level. I personally have been frustrated because there has been push back on city initiatives, and sometimes I feel as though the CVB isn't working in the best interest of the city."

The council took no action Monday, as the session was for discussion only.

Matthew Liedke

Matthew Liedke is the city, county and state government reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He also covers business, politics and financial news.

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