BEMIDJI -- Candidates for the Bemidji Mayor's office gave their opinions on several issues during a debate Tuesday, organized by the League of Women Voters.
The candidates include Michael Meehlhause, an academic advisor at Trek North School and current Ward 1 Council Member, and Jorge Prince, the chief financial officer for LaValley Industries making his second bid for mayor. The two earned their spots in the Nov. 3 General Election in August during a primary against four other candidates.
Those candidates defeated in the August race were John Henningsgaard, Robert Elliott, Mark Thorson and Ivan Smith. Not included in the mayoral race this year is the incumbent, Mayor Rita Albrecht. Instead, Albrecht is running as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party candidate for Minnesota Senate District 5.
During Tuesday's debate, the mayoral hopefuls were asked about topics that have been around for years, and others that are more recent. An example of the latter was a question about how the candidates can support businesses during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
"When I think about COVID-19, the first thing is we have to be willing to listen to our businesses, because every one of them is different," Prince said. "They have different needs. So, the city has the obligation to partner well with the Bemidji Chamber of Commerce, Greater Bemidji Economic Development, and be out and about to meet with business owners more than ever before so we can properly assess what they need."
In his response, Meehlhause said the superior strategy is protecting the health of the city's residents.
"I think the best way to work with businesses during this troubling time is to protect public health," Meehlhause said. "That's the first and most important thing we can do. Sometimes, as a city council or mayor, you have to make hard decisions. Decisions that aren't always going to be popular, for example, the mask ordinance. The result was the cases were going down until recently. An order like that, which was unpopular, worked."
Another business related question to the candidates was how relations can be improved between the city government and entrepreneurs.
"The relationship between the city council and the business community is one that's built on trust," Meehlhause said. "I think it's important that we remember that respect is a two-way street. I have a lot of respect for business owners that are trying to grow and do good by themselves and employees. But, there also needs to be respect for the city and some of its processes. We have processes, such as fees and ordinances, because we are stewards of the public."
In his response, Prince argued that businesses aren't opposed to city ordinances, but that the government should be more open to working with entrepreneurs for better solutions.
"I hear business owners say 'we understand there are zoning and ordinances, but instead of penalizing us, work with us on how to meet those,'" Prince said. "They say 'we have no problem with paying fees, but work with us on them being reasonable.' I think trust has also been damaged over the years because sometimes the council has made comments it shouldn't have."
The city-owned event facility, the Sanford Center, was also a topic receiving plenty of discussion. The building, now 10 years old, is home to BSU men's and women's hockey. The building includes an arena with more than 4,000 seats and attached conference space.
The facility, managed by the Iowa-based company VenuWorks, receives an operating investment annually worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In addressing the topic, Meehlhause noted how Bemidji, unlike other communities, don't have a separate tax to support an event building.
"Every single event center in Minnesota has an additional tax that supports it," Meehlhause said. "Every city-owned event center runs on a deficit, but, they have some sort of tax, whether that's a hospital tax to support operations or a sales tax to support capital improvements.
"Bemidji is the lone exception," Meehlhause said. "In the eight years I've been on the council, we've been unified that we need one of those two tools. To make that happen, we need Bemidji buy-in. What we've done over the years is try to get that community support. I want to make sure we support this event center fairly. This is a regional amenity that should be supported regionally."
In his response, Prince said the council needs the backing of the community first, before it attempts to move forward on a new tax.
"This council has not had the backing of the community to get a sales tax or hospitality tax," Prince said. "I think it's in great part because many residents of the city, whether they were for or against the event center, don't believe it's operated well.
"From my point of view, it's here, and it does bring economic gain," said Prince. "The bottom line is, we have to find ways to make it work. We have to look at the business model and we have to be willing to look at the management team. We have to finish the real estate development that's down there. Then we might be able to get the community's support, when we've given them confidence that the city is doing everything it can to make it successful."