Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board holds public forum
Members of the community had the chance to ask questions and hear from the Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board during a public forum on Tuesday, April 26, before the board begins the process of reviewing planning and zoning ordinances in Bemidji and Northern Township.
BEMIDJI — Members of the community had the chance to ask questions and hear from the Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board during a public forum on Tuesday before the board begins the process of reviewing planning and zoning ordinances in Bemidji and Northern Township.
“Our board is looking to do a comprehensive review of our zoning ordinances,” said Mayor Jorge Prince, who also serves as chair of the JPB. “We’re having this forum today because we’re getting ready to kick off this process.”
Held at the Sanford Center and hosted by the Bemidji Chamber and Greater Bemidji, the forum brought together around 70 local business owners and members of the public who had questions for the JPB.
One of the initial topics raised during the forum was actions that can be taken to keep businesses in the area and draw more in. Attendees shared concerns that the zoning ordinances might be too restrictive or that the fees associated with starting a business in the Bemidji area were too high.
“It doesn’t make my heart happy when I drive down Highway 2 and I see businesses that have left our community,” Prince said. “It’s not lost on me that we’re losing tax base and potentially jobs.”
The board members explained that the upcoming review is looking to answer questions about how to draw in more businesses to the Bemidji area.
“The best we can do really is what we’re doing right now,” said Jess Frenzel, who is on the Northern Township Board and the JPB. “(We’re) trying to make things reasonable and effective and to help make things that can draw businesses here.”
Members of the JPB acknowledged that attracting and retaining businesses was a multifaceted issue, however, and that the ordinances currently in place are not unusual.
“The ordinances (in Bemidji) are very similar to other cities of our size,” said Jamin Carlson, planning director for the board.
Other potential obstacles and concerns should also be examined and addressed, according to board members. This includes looking at why a business might choose not to establish itself in Bemidji.
“When somebody says, this is a stumbling block, what is it and why is it a stumbling block?” Prince asked. “What’s the difficulty and at what point is that a breaking point for people?”
Learning these concerns was part of the motivation for hosting the forum since it gave a chance for business owners to communicate directly with the JPB.
“I think it’s helpful to listen to people even if we don’t have the answers for you today,” Prince said. “If you’re sharing it with us, then at least we know what your concerns are.”
Those attending the forum brought up several concerns, ranging from incentivizing new businesses to ensuring support for those that have already been established.
“What about us, the ones who are trying now?” one attendee with a business downtown asked. “When does the help for the businesses that are here start?”
Other business owners shared this concern, worrying that the regulations and fees were not consistently enforced between new and existing businesses.
One example was related to the lodging tax that hotels and other overnight lodging businesses have to pay. Jill Beardsley, owner of the Lake Bemidji Bed and Breakfast, questioned whether the new short-term rentals in the area were paying the lodging tax the same as she was.
“I know they aren’t paying it,” Beardsley said, “Why am I paying a lodging tax if they’re not?”
This concern was something the JPB acknowledged was outside of their role. Once the paperwork establishing a short-term rental is approved and passed on to the Department of Health, the JPB is no longer the responsible agency.
“Once we’ve forwarded it on it’s out of our hands, we just don’t have the enforcement,” said Carlson, “we’re not a taxation authority ourselves.”
Some downtown business owners shared concerns over people under the influence of drugs or alcohol hanging around on the sidewalks. They expressed worry that customers would be deterred from entering their businesses because of this.
“Every city has this issue,” Audrey Thayer, a Bemidji city councilor and member of the JPB, said in response. “It’s a huge problem for all of us in the city and our businesses … It is an issue that will continue and that I’ll try to address.”
Through the discussion held at the forum and future outreach plans, the JPB hopes to establish a list of concerns that will help them improve ordinances and zoning plans.
“There’s going to be plenty of opportunity going forward here to do some back and forth,” Carlson said. “We don’t have all the answers, and it’s the community that we need to draw our solutions from as well.”