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Railroad Corridor Development top topic at Bemidji Launchpad Meet-up

Ward 4 Councilor Emelie Rivera and Bemidji City Manager Nate Mathews spoke with community members on Wednesday morning about the progress of the proposed Railroad Corridor development at an event hosted by Launchpad Bemidji.

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Ward 4 City Counselor Emelie Rivera and City Manager Nate Mathews lead a Launchpad meet-up at the Mayflower Building on Wednesday, July 6, 2022, in Bemidji.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — The topic of development of the Railroad Corridor in downtown Bemidji took center stage at a Launchpad meet-up on Wednesday morning.

Held as part of a series of events hosted by Launchpad Bemidji, the conversation featured Ward 4 Councilor Emelie Rivera and City Manager Nate Mathews, who were invited to answer questions and meet with community members over coffee and donuts at Bemidji’s Mayflower Building.

After introducing themselves and describing their roles, the conversation quickly turned to questions about progress on the proposed development of the Railroad Corridor, which has been under consideration in its current form since 2021.

In May, the Bemidji City Council heard an update on the proposal, which is set to be a wellness center built in partnership with Sanford Health. The report included the results of a site assessment and the potential cleanup and infrastructure costs that would need to be done in preparation for development.

“Right now it's getting to the end of what I would call the due diligence phase,” Mathews said.

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Cleanup of the site from its historical industrial use will be an estimated $3 million, and upgrading the area’s infrastructure to support modern development is expected to be over $5 million.

“It’s going to be difficult to develop this site,” said Dave Hengel, executive director of Greater Bemidji, who attended the event. “History has shown that (it's going to be difficult), in that we haven't developed that site yet.”

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Greater Bemidji Executive Director Dave Hengel speaks during a Launchpad meet-up at the Mayflower Building on Wednesday, July 6, 2022, in Bemidji.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

The total cost of the proposed project, which would include a wellness center, ice rinks, parking and apartment complexes is estimated at $87 million.

Hengel, whose organization is also a partner in the project, stressed that the proposal would not be operated or owned by the city.

“This can be a self-funded project, this is not the Sanford Center,” Hengel said. “It is not funded by the city, it is not operated by the city.”

As plans have progressed for the project, an emphasis has been made on incorporating community feedback, something Rivera highlighted in the discussion.

“We’ve heard a lot of feedback from the community, and that’s really what we want,” Rivera said. “What does wellness look like? What should this center have available to the community?”

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Ward 4 City Counselor Emelie Rivera and City Manager Nate Mathews answer attendee’s questions during a Launchpad meet-up on Wednesday, July 6, 2022, in Bemidji.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Rivera and Hengel both encouraged community members to get involved in the process and find out how they can participate in listening sessions and other opportunities to provide feedback.

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“One of the most significant things we’ve heard from people is having a really good cross-section of input from the community,” Rivera said. “We really need to consider community wellness in a holistic way.”

In the audience for the event, there was considerable enthusiasm about the wellness center and the development as a whole.

“This would be a tremendous asset for long-term downtown Bemidji,” said Jim Benson, an audience member and the former president of Bemidji State University. “This is going to be a tremendous lift in making downtown a key part of the city.”

As for where the project currently stands, Mathews explained that the next step is not one the city needs to take. Right now, the project is waiting on Kraus-Anderson Construction, which is in a Memorandum of Understanding with the city for the development of the site, to decide whether or not to proceed.

“Fundamentally the developer needs to make the decision. Do they want to develop this site or not?” Mathews explained. “It’s really in Kraus-Anderson’s court right now.”

The MOU with Kraus-Anderson ends on July 18, and the city is hoping to hear from the firm with a decision before then.

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Gary Johnson, chair of the Bemidji Alliance and CEO of Paul Bunyan Communications, speaks on Wednesday, July 6, 2022, at a Launchpad meet-up at the Mayflower Building in Bemidji.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Growth in Bemidji

Another topic that came forward during the meetup was how to make Bemidji’s growth sustainable, particularly as the city continues to struggle with its housing supply.

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Mathews acknowledged that the housing market remains tight in Bemidji, even as different housing developments are being constructed. This lack of supply is hitting the availability of affordable housing in particular.

“That’s created a bit of a hole in the affordable housing market,” Mathews said. “People are being priced out.”

Even as the city works to improve its housing supply, Bemidji is drawing in more people and continuing to grow, which also has its benefits.

“We’ve got people moving to town like crazy,” Benson commented. “That’s a really fantastic thing to have in your back pocket, that’s providing opportunity.”

Mathews and Rivera agreed with the opportunities that a growing population provides to the city, particularly around attracting businesses and talent.

For Rivera, making that growth sustainable and having it benefit everyone in the city is another key consideration.

“How do we balance that growth and development while still meeting the needs of people who haven’t had their needs met yet?” she asked, bringing up Bemidji’s high poverty rate.

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Paul Muller, marketing strategist for Greater Bemidji, gives opening remarks ahead of a Launchpad meet-up on Wednesday, July 6, 2022, at the Mayflower building in Bemidji.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Partnering with local organizations and ensuring that everyone involved in the process is planning with future growth in mind was one strategy that was brought up in the discussion before it closed.

“We really need to work with these community entities that are bringing people in,” Rivera said. “It’s not just what’s happening right now, we have to talk down the road.”

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