BEMIDJI -- Four of the six candidates for the position of Bemidji mayor answered questions during a gathering at Cameron Park Saturday.
John Henningsgaard, Michael Meehlhause, Jorge Prince and Mark Thorson were each given time during the event to introduce themselves and their platform, as well as respond to inquiries from those in attendance. Organized by the League of Women Voters of the Bemidji Area, the event also provided time for City Council candidates to speak with constituents.
A variety of subjects were covered during the first phase of the event featuring the mayoral contenders. For example, during his time to speak, Henningsgaard was asked about his opinion regarding improvements to State Highway 197, also known as Paul Bunyan Drive.
In 2019, the Minnesota Department of Transportation announced its interest in making upgrades to the stretch of road between Bemidji Avenue and Gillette Drive. In its proposal, the agency suggested reconstructing the road, making utility improvements, and installing six roundabouts.
However, the Bemidji City Council rejected the project when it came up for a vote. Because the road remains in need of improvements, though, the agency is looking to make another proposal and has enlisted the help of the Headwaters Regional Development Commission to get community input on what the best project would be.
"The HRDC right now is pulling together people for that discussion," Henningsgaard said. "I think it's in good hands there and I have faith they can bring people together and have a good conversation.
"I think there really is something to those roundabouts and safety. We have way too many off and ons on that road, and that's a concern. That number was a little overwhelming, but there are definitely some places where a roundabout could serve well," he added.
During his time slot, Henningsgaard was also asked about improving race relations in the city as mayor. The inquiry comes more than a month after the death of George Floyd on May 25. In the weeks that followed, protests and demonstrations took place calling for race equity and police accountability across the state, including Bemidji.
"I've been making an effort to get up to date on those issues in the community and to bring people together," Henningsgaard said. As part of his answer, Henningsgaard also cited recent meetings he's had about the subject with Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin and Ashley Charwood, who's worked with Bemidji Truth and Reconciliation.
Meehlhause was also asked about improving race relations in the community. In his remarks, Meehlhause said, "There has to be a comprehensive conversation. As mayor, I want to listen, learn, speak truth to power where I can and ultimately try and bring the community together.
While he took center-stage, Meehlhause was also asked about his stance on continuing local efforts related to fighting climate change.
"We're seeing how climate change is affecting Bemidji, such as our winters where we're not having as much safe ice as in the past," Meehlhause said. "I coach a nordic ski team, and there's been years where I've had to wait until January before I'm able to bring kids onto our trails in this area.
Along with continuing those efforts, Meehlhause said, "We're trying to address pollution, and make sure Lake Bemidji doesn't become an impaired lake. We're also talking about treating phosphorus in Lake Irving."
While he was speaking to the audience, Prince covered the topic of the Sanford Center, the city-owned event facility which contains a 4,373-seat arena and attached conference space. Now a decade old, the facility is managed by the Ames, Iowa-based company VenuWorks and the city annually invests hundreds of thousands of dollars into the building for operations, with the most recent number coming to $450,000.
"A lot of people were against the Sanford Center," Prince said. "When I was door knocking as a candidate in 2014, I met a lot of people who said 'I refuse to step inside the Sanford Center.' We have to look at what's in front of us. It's here. We have to make it successful. But, I've never heard anyone from the city say 'I'm sorry. We made a mistake. We built it, but we didn't fund it right, and we probably over-built it. Whether you were for it or against it, it probably hasn't worked out the way we thought.'"
Prince was also asked Saturday about bringing more jobs to Bemidji.
"If you look at Hibbing or Thief River Falls, what do they have that Bemidji doesn't? Industry," Prince said. "Bemidji has all of the other amenities. We have to bring industry to Bemidji that brings manufacturing and high technology jobs. We have to make the city business friendly, we have to have the welcome mat out for businesses to want to come here and locate."
The economy and finances was a subject Thorson started on right away in his comments.
"I filed for mayor for several reasons, but it all boils down to a common denominator, and that's a concern I have over our city's declining financial health," Thorson said. "At the current time, the city is saddled with enormous debt. Our spending to revenue ratios are dangerously tight. The economic forecast for Bemidji is at best uncomfortable, and at worst it's bleak.
"One of the biggest problems we have here is our (Greater Bemidji Area) Joint Planning Board," said Thorson. "That is a gauntlet. Several years ago I was trying to put in an asphalt plant in southern Bemidji in the Industrial Park, and you almost feel like a criminal going through the court. I think the culture's wrong and the tone is wrong."
Mayoral candidates absent from Saturday's event were Robert Elliott and Ivan Smith. For the other city races, event organizers had the candidates go to different areas of the park based on wards to speak directly to constituents.
The primary election for these races is set for Aug. 11 while the general election is Nov. 3.