BEMIDJI -- Greater Bemidji Economic Development Director Dave Hengel gave an update to the City Council during its meeting on Monday evening.

In his presentation, Hengel detailed the organization's efforts in response to COVID-19 and gave a reminder of the success the community has experienced in recent years.

"Eight months ago, we talked about what a great year it was for Bemidji in 2019," Hengel said. "A lot of things happened where all of a sudden, Bemidji was the second fastest growing center in the state of Minnesota."

One of the success stories Hengel cited was the opening of Delta Dental's technology center in fall 2019. The 38,000-square foot structure was an $11 million project and the company has employed 150 people. The facility was constructed in Bemidji's Technology Park, a sector in the northern part of the city west of U.S. Highway 71, which is also home to Beltrami Electric Cooperative and Paul Bunyan Communications.

Another highlight Hengel noted was the intention of NorthStar Pellets to invest $30 million to build, equip and open a facility near the PotlatchDeltic lumber mill off of U.S. Highway 2, nine miles southeast of Bemidji. The proposed plant could create 45 jobs.

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The facility would create pellets made from chips and sawdust leftover from logs at sawmills. Hengel said NorthStar has requested state assistance for hauling the products to the west coast, as the pellets would be sent to a port in Vancouver for exporting.

While company recruitment and retention has been successful, Hengel said over the past several months the organization turned its focus toward preserving the business community under pressure from the coronavirus. Since the pandemic hit in March, Hengel said Greater Bemidji has responded with more than seven programs that have helped over 100 businesses throughout the community.

While those programs have assisted the local economy so far, Hengel said the work isn't done yet.

"We can't declare victory and go home," Hengel said. "I feel like my biggest concern is three to five months from now, when all the stimulus funds start to dry up. Then what? I encourage you to keep an eye on the business community moving forward and continue to reach out to see what we can do to help."

TIC lease approved for Visit Bemidji

The council later took action Monday to approve a five year lease from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31, 2025 allowing Visit Bemidji to remain tenants at the city-owned Tourist Information Center. The building, referred to as the TIC, has been the home of Visit Bemidji since 2017.

It's located at 300 Bemidji Ave. N, adjacent to the Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues. Moving forward, Visit Bemidji will rent the building at a cost of $757 per month.

The lease agreement approved Monday allows for two automatic renewals for five year terms. For each renewal, the terms and conditions of the agreement will remain in effect unless modified.

Previously, Visit Bemidji shared the space with the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, which had been in the building for 25 years. However, earlier this year, the Chamber relocated to the Mayflower Building in downtown, which also houses Greater Bemidji.

Visit Bemidji was founded in 1988 and receives funding through a 3% lodging tax in the city. The organization contracts with the city to conduct local promotion of the community. While the agenda item was under consideration, Ward 2 Council member Josh Peterson recused himself and abstained from voting as he's also Visit Bemidji's executive director.

CARES appropriation

More dollars were distributed from funds provided to the city through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act Monday. Earlier this month, the council allocated $791,012 of the federal funding from the CARES package for costs accumulated from March through July.

According to Finance Director Ron Eischens, the council must now allocate funds for expenses in August. The recommendation Eischens provided was to approve allocating $101,562, leaving a remaining balance of $272,337. The dollars will go toward payroll expenses related to needed staff changes during the pandemic and protective equipment.