BEMIDJI -- An ongoing discussion at City Hall about providing funds to Greater Bemidji Economic Development continued Monday with opinions on the partnership and new ideas moving forward.
The city has been partnered with the economic development organization for more than three decades and over the last several years the council has authorized $30,000 annually for Greater Bemidji to assist in the community's industrial and business growth. The city provides the money to the organization through a state statute, which allows a city to provide up to $50,000.
In looking to the future, though, city staff brought forward to the work session Monday an option allowing the city to create a competitive process for the funding. According to City Manager Nate Mathews, Beltrami County uses this method in dispensing money to organizations, including Greater Bemidji.
However, Greater Bemidji Executive Director Dave Hengel said the county's process is "dramatically different" than that of the city.
"The city provides $30,000, where the county is dealing with close to $100,000," Hengel said. "Geographically, there's also pressure because northern Beltrami County feels Bemidji gets everything, so they need a competitive process allowing them to share resources across the county."
Hengel said the state statute also allows agricultural development entities access to those types of funds, and they're more likely to exist in the county, rather than the city.
Hengel said Greater Bemidji's board sees the city as a critical partner in economic development success.
"Greater Bemidji doesn't see this as a donation," Hengel said. "These are services provided on behalf of the city, and there hasn't been a year where we haven't listened to the council."
Mayor Rita Albrecht said she hopes Greater Bemidji will stand with the city when it approaches the Legislature next year to authorize a sales tax for infrastructure and a hospitality tax to support the Sanford Center operations.
"We have some priorities that aren't as attractive," Albrecht said. "We need to work on contamination in our wells, we have to do some work at our wastewater treatment plant. I want to make sure Greater Bemidji recognizes the City Council is working on behalf of the constituents. That's what it means to have a partnership, that you're there for the bright shiny objects, but you're also there for the messy, heavy lifting."
Hengel said he agreed that the city and Greater Bemidji's board should have more dialogue, including a discussion about next year's legislative session.
"The city of Bemidji needs partners now more than it's ever needed them," Ward 3 council member Ron Johnson added. "It needs partners to help make the case for the sales tax. We know what happens when we don't have that support."
The idea of making the funds competitive was met openly by Ward 4 council member Emelie Rivera, though.
"The Northwest Indian Community Development Center serves 2,400 people every year," Rivera said. "Those people are getting economic impacts and adding to the tax base. The 800 women served at the women's shelter, they're part of the economic development in this community. There are a lot of services in this community that would turn over backward for even $500, let alone $5,000."
In response, Hengel shared data from the Minnesota Innovation Institute, a program offering training to assist workforce development. Hengel also shared how he feels Greater Bemidji differs from other entities.
"This is not against any nonprofit, but I think we need to distinguish the difference between doing that good work and adding to the tax base," Hengel said.
An opponent to providing the economic development funding altogether was Ward 5 council member Nancy Erickson.
"If we were to offer this program across the board to every entity that does good work in this community, and there are lots of them that are tremendous, I just wonder what the levy would be," Erickson said. "The point is, do I have the authority to levy the public and turn their tax dollars over to someone else? I don't believe I do. I know it's statutory, but not all laws are good. I don't agree with it."
Ward 1 council member Michael Meehlhause offered the concept of raising the amount of dollars available under the state's cap.
"Under state statute, we're able to give up to $50,000 and we've only done $30,000. One of the thoughts I've had is let's go up to that $50,000," Meehlhause said. "What I'd like to see is we go up to $50,000, so not only could Greater Bemidji continue getting what they've had the last 30 years or so, but other groups could take the fund and run with it."
Ward 2 council member Mike Beard agreed with Meehlhause's idea and said the city could explore using the interest from the revolving loan fund.
"Why don't we add that to this? Greater Bemidji has earned their keep, but this doesn't have to be an either/or -- it's an us," Beard said.
"If they increase the amount that's fine, but we also don't want to lose what we've had," Hengel told the Pioneer after the meeting. "Our economic development is as strong as it's ever been. We have a statewide reputation of being strong and innovative, so it's not the right time to be cutting that funding."
At the meeting's conclusion, the council agreed to revisit the topic at a work session in January.