BEMIDJI -- Four of the six candidates vying to be the First City on the Mississippi’s next mayor faced off in a Zoom forum Wednesday night, moderated by Larissa Donovan of Bemidji Now and Matthew Liedke of the Bemidji Pioneer.
During the debate, the candidates discussed infrastructure, the Sanford Center, the rail corridor, a proposed hospitality tax, mayoral term limits, COVID-19 and the future of Bemidji.
After fumbling through a few to-be-expected-on-Zoom technical difficulties, candidates were all given a chance to introduce themselves.
The candidates participating in the debate were: Jorge Prince, 48-year-old Chief Financial Officer of LaValley Industries, who said during the debate his number one priority as mayor would be to bring the diverse groups of the community together to solve issues facing Bemidji by creating citizen task forces.
Robert Elliot, a 40-year-old real estate broker, said his number one priority as mayor would be to work to ensure business and job growth in the city.
John Henningsgaard, a 63-year-old retired teacher, said his number one priority as mayor would be to move the Sanford Center issue forward, shaping it into a regional asset and finding a regional source of revenue.
Michael Meehlhause, a 31-year-old current Ward 1 council member and Academic Advisor at Trek North School, said his number one priority as mayor is to help the community respond to the effects of COVID-19 and to work with minority communities in Bemidji.
Candidates Ivan Smith and Mark Thorson were not in attendance.
Hospitality and entertainment
Hospitality and entertainment were large topics of discussion during the forum, despite COVID-19 seemingly putting them on the back burner.
Currently, temporary vacation rentals --such as Airbnb and VRBO -- are not allowed within Bemidji city limits aside from a few exceptions. Candidates weighed in on whether or not this rule should change. Most said they were at least somewhat open to the idea, as long as the vacation rentals were well managed and followed ordinances.
“Generally speaking, not a huge fan,” Prince said. “I’m also not quick to restrict people’s rights on what to do with their real estate so long as they are following ordinances the city has issued.”
Elliot feels these types of rentals would be beneficial in a city like Bemidji that has a large tourist population. “I am in favor of them,” he said. “As long as they are following the rules of the law, let’s do it.”
Henningsgaard said he thought the city probably had a good reason to restrict this but said perhaps there is wiggle room -- for example, vacation rentals could be allowed in certain zones.
Meehlhause gave reasons for the initial restrictions but said he was personally in favor of vacation rentals. “I think it would ultimately be a positive to our hospitality industry in town,” he said.
Candidates were asked about their opinions on enacting a hospitality or sales tax to support the Sanford Center, which has been a point of contention since its construction and is currently solely supported by property taxes.
Meehlhause said most event centers around the state have a second revenue stream, and that he would support either a hospitality tax or a local sales tax to ease the taxpayer burden on the Sanford Center. “It is a regional asset that needs to be supported regionally,” he said.
Prince proposed looking at four things related to the Sanford Center: Adjust the center’s business model; assess the Sanford Center management team; finish the development around the Sanford Center; and/or look at a usage tax, either hospitality or sales.
Elliot argued the Sanford Center has given the area an economic boost in other ways. He said he would be open to exploring a hospitality tax but is more concerned about assessing whether the center’s management team is a good fit.
Henningsgaard said the Sanford Center was never meant to be funded by city taxes, and he would like to find a regional source of funding.
While Zoom attendance of the event was limited to candidates and moderators, the public was given the opportunity to submit questions for the candidates beforehand. The public submitted questions related to Bemidji’s relationship with the environment.
One submitted question wondered why Bemidji doesn’t offer curbside recycling when many other comparable towns in the region do. Candidates came to a similar consensus -- all seemed to be supportive of curbside recycling but didn’t know how it could be funded.
Another citizen asked candidates’ priorities for parks and trails. All candidates said the city’s parks and trails are huge assets that need to be well maintained.
COVID-19 surprisingly didn’t loom large over the event. Even coming days after the citywide mask mandate, now moot because of the state mandate, the contentious issue was not addressed.
Only one question posed to the candidates was directly COVID-19 related -- how do you plan to support small business during and after COVID-19?
Henningsgaard said moving forward the city will have to play a big role in supporting small businesses. “They are the key to our city,” he said.
Meehlhause said while the city will receive CARES act funding, it may be tricky to put that money toward small businesses due to restrictions. “We need to make sure that we are taking steps to promote public health,” he said, mentioning that the mask mandate has not seemed to deter people from coming downtown.
In reflecting on Bemijdi’s positive accomplishments in the recent past, Prince said he was impressed by the city’s openness to downtown businesses using city spaces for outdoor dining. Elliot agreed saying, “we need more of that, we need more of those communications with businesses.”
Candidates were asked to imagine Bemidji in 2030, and most seemed optimistic.
“I see a diverse community becoming a real hub for northern Minnesota. With schooling, medical, shopping, industry -- a community united,” Elliot said. “We do need to unite as a whole, become better people to everyone. And I think we can do that.”
“Bemidji in ten years-- I would hope for an even more vibrant and progressive community," Henningsgaard said, "that is continuing to build its parks and trails, continuing to expand on its cultural opportunity, continuing to build its economic base by attracting people to this vibrant and progressive community.” He hopes to achieve this by investing in housing and the downtown area.
“This is a community I want to grow old and raise a family in,” Meehlhause said. “We’re well-positioned to be a leader, not just in northern Minnesota, but all of Minnesota.” He said he hopes to level the playing field in town in terms of access to health and other resources.
“Oh, Bemidji let’s dream big,” Prince said. “I want a community that’s diverse, where people just see other people as people.” He hopes Bemidji will be seen as a model for rural development.
In the more immediate future, candidates discussed police relations, potential projects, mayoral term limit changes and infrastructure issues.
Bemidji is currently facing a number of infrastructure crises -- Highway 197 maintenance, water well issues, wastewater treatment plant needing upgrades. The Pioneer’s Liedke asked candidates if they would advocate “for some sort of study or review of the city’s infrastructure status so the city might be a bit less caught off guard by any sort of infrastructure needs in the future?”
Elliot said this would be worth looking into, but only after the issues at hand are solved.
“When it comes to infrastructure within the city here, I think the primary goal right now is we need to take care of the issues that are at hand.” To him, these two main issues are the water treatment plant and the wastewater treatment plant.
Henningsgaard said he thinks the city has been handling these issues well as they arise. “I have confidence moving forward that the city staff is well informed and has a plan,” he said.
Meehlhause echoed Henningsgaard’s assessment. “The water treatment plant and the wastewater treatment plant are big issues right now, but they’re the product of long term planning,” he said. “We are making a big deal about it now because it is going to be a big deal, but big projects like this you need to plan ahead and I feel like that’s what we have been doing.”
Prince said he is in favor of doing an evaluation but doesn’t want it to cost the taxpayers too much money. “We don’t want any more surprises,” he said.
The four men also weighed in on a police advisory committee -- whether this is necessary and if so, what should it accomplish. Prince said he hoped to see more open discourse between the police and the public. “Anything we can do to move that conversation forward, I’m in support of,” he said.
“To have a board committee that can bring the community together with police officers is huge,” Elliot said. “If it starts with a committee, let’s get a committee together and let’s move forward.”
Henningsgaard mentioned that Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin is in full support of the committee. “The committee absolutely needs to happen, because people need to be heard,” he said.
Meehlhause said as an elected official, he needs to bridge the gap between the community and law enforcement. “We need to help build trust with people that do not trust the community police. This committee is definitely needed,” he said.
Candidates addressed the topic of potentially extending mayoral term limits to four years instead of two. All except Henningsgaard indicated they were open to extending the term limit. The issue will be on the ballot in November for Bemidjians to decide, Meehlhause said.
The six candidates in the mayoral race will all compete in the Aug. 11 primary.
Watch the recording of the live debate below: