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Bemidji City Council continues first reading of new rental ordinance, hears update on Railroad Corridor

The Bemidji City Council opted to continue the first reading on a new rental ordinance, they also heard a presentation on the progress for the Rail Corridor development.

Bemidji City Hall
Bemidji City Hall. Pioneer file photo
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BEMIDJI — In one of the many topics covered during its session on Monday, the Bemidji City Council opted to extend the first reading of a new rental ordinance to give councilors more time to read and understand the text.

The rental ordinance, which was last updated in 2011, has been under revision for over a year under the supervision of a committee, and a draft of the ordinance was presented to the council on Monday.

Though the complete first reading was on the agenda as part of a three-step approval process, after the reading began the council ultimately decided to extend this step until its next regular meeting to allow councilors more time to understand the proposal.

“I have a lot of questions about what’s in here,” said Mayor Jorge Prince. “It’s not an easy subject matter.”

The majority of the council agreed with this but there was still some discussion on what the draft ordinance included.

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In particular, Ward 1 Councilor Audrey Thayer asked whether this ordinance would be sufficient to prevent placing the city in difficult situations where properties are not kept up, but condemning them would leave residents with no place to go.

“We’ve had situations of apartments and housing that may have not been fit for people to live in,” Thayer said, alluding to the ongoing situation with the Ridgeway Apartments. “That’s the Catch-22 I’m really struggling with.”

Thayer emphasized that the majority of landlords and property managers in Bemidji are not like this, but wondered whether the new ordinance would have strong enough enforcement measures to avoid similar situations.

“I think we have some really good property owners in our city,” Thayer explained. “But there’s always a few (bad ones), and those are the ones I’m concerned about.”

The complexity of this topic was one of the reasons some of the councilors requested more time to examine the details of the draft.

“If we don’t learn from our mistakes, we’re going to repeat them,” Prince said.

The first reading will be continued during the city council’s Nov. 7 meeting.

Other business

The council also heard a report on the progress being made toward the proposed private development of the Rail Corridor in downtown Bemidji.

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The proposal includes a clean-up of the area and the construction of a wellness center, along with some apartments and green space.

Multiple partnering organizations have been working to make the project a reality, including Sanford Health, which would operate the wellness center, and Greater Bemidji, which has been working on fundraising efforts.

Dave Hengel, executive director of Greater Bemidji, and Susan Jarvis, the CEO of Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota, both presented to the council during the meeting.

“It’s been a deliberate process,” Hengel said. “As all these due diligence things come together, it’s really critical that the council remain informed about where we’re at."

Hengel shared that the project has already raised nearly $8 million from fundraising and that the project is moving along as planned.

“The givers that donated have given generously,” Hengel said “They see this as a really significant project for our community.”

He also emphasized the next steps facing the council, which will include a purchase agreement and a development agreement. If everything goes according to schedule, Hengel hopes that construction could begin in the spring of 2024.

Hengel also stressed that since this would be a private development, the risk is not on the city for the project.

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“It’s the developer that’s proposing to take the risk on this,” Hengel explained. “There really isn’t a risk to the city.”

Jarvis, meanwhile, shared with the council the steps that Sanford Health has been taking to from the community on the project.

This included listening sessions held last spring, and a series of one-on-one interviews with community members from a broad range of ages, ethnicities and backgrounds.

In the interviews, participants were asked what they wanted to see most with a wellness center, and what barriers they might face in being able to use it.

Participants expressed a desire for the center to be welcoming to everyone and have a wide variety of programs. They also saw the biggest barriers as being transportation and child care, something Jarvis said Sanford Health will be taking into account.

While the number of interviews has exceeded Sanford’s goals, Jarvis said they are still working to interview more people and that anyone interested in sharing their thoughts can reach out. Those with comments can email resiliencyteambeltrami@gmail.com.

“We were challenged to dig a little bit deeper,” Jarvis said, “(so) we’re still interviewing with people.”

Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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