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Pawlenty: Community deserves project

A week ago, Gov. Tim Pawlenty grumbled about the DFL-controlled Legislature's $925 million public works bonding bill, saying non-essentials such as "hockey rinks" can wait another year.

A week ago, Gov. Tim Pawlenty grumbled about the DFL-controlled Legislature's $925 million public works bonding bill, saying non-essentials such as "hockey rinks" can wait another year.

But Wednesday, in an interview and in remarks to a packed Bemidji City Hall chambers, the Republican governor said Bemidji's events center is more than a hockey rink.

"It's not that it ever was deemed a bad project, it was just a matter of timing," Pawlenty told The Pioneer. "I wanted to make sure we kept things moving, there was concern whether they (Bemidji State University) could lose their Division I status."

BSU's current NCAA Division I hockey facility, the John Glas Fieldhouse, is considered inadequate if the university is to continue in Division I hockey for its men's and women's teams. BSU seeks membership into the prestigious Western Collegiate Hockey Association, and a new arena is a must, the league says.

The WCHA currently has a moratorium on new memberships, but has agreed to schedule games with BSU as long as progress is being made toward new facilities and that they are ready by the 2010 season. BSU's current league, College Hockey America, is down to four teams and could fold.

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"There's a lot of momentum in the community and we want to keep that going," Pawlenty said, "rather than put that on pause for a year or two years later. I think it was better to build on the momentum that's here."

In the end, Pawlenty said he decided to move the Bemidji Regional Events Center project forward. "I think the community deserves it, they worked hard to put it together with a good, solid plan, and they did their part with the referendum.

"We wanted to live up to our end of the bargain," he added.

The DFL bonding bill exceeded a traditional debt service limit of 3 percent of general revenues, Pawlenty said, causing "tough decisions" to pare back the bill.

"When it came to deciding whether the Bemidji project was in or out, when you look at what this holds for the future," Pawlenty said, highlighting that future as being successful if BSU is successful.

"We have an anchor in this community, a foundational institution which is the university," he said. "The university is going to need to be successful if the community's going to be successful. The university directly provides a lot of jobs and economic activity for the community, but as important is it has a magnetic quality. It draws people in who are seeking educational opportunity."

The more students BSU attracts "who want to get educated and succeed in life, you increase the likelihood that some of them are going to stay in the community," the GOP governor told the group. "And they make, in turn, economic, civic and educational contributions to the community, to the region, and to the state."

An events center can provide that draw, as well as improve Division I hockey should BSU be admitted to the WCHA, he said.

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"But in order to be a university and a place where people want to come, both educationally and otherwise, you're going to have to have modern facilities," he said.

"Beyond that, if you look at the broader vision, just beyond Division I hockey, this is a facility and a vision about more than just that," Pawlenty said. "This is a statement that's going to say to the region, the state and to the Upper Midwest and maybe well beyond, this is a place where events are going to have an opportunity to be hosted in facilities that will make you proud, that will be modern, that will be state-of-the-art."

The events center could host sporting events, musical events, entertainment, tourism events, educational events, exhibits and more, he said. "The marketplace now says people aren't going to put those kind of events into old, tired, outdated, obsolete facilities. It's an important strategic investment that will in turn anchor the larger development plans that the city has beyond just the convention center and the arena.'

The city plans to locate the events center on the Lake Bemidji south shore, which it purchased earlier this year, and plans call for the city to sell portions for compatible development to the events center.

"Bemidji is going to benefit from it, the state of Minnesota is going to benefit from it and this partnership is going to pay a dividend," the governor said.

One of the 52 line-item vetoes Pawlenty issued was for Red Lake Reservation schools, redlining $16 million that the DFL Legislature put in its bonding bill. But both the House and Senate had $32 million in their bills, and the Red Lake School District had requested $59.2 million.

The money was targeted to Red Lake High School and Middle School improvements and renovation, and a new district administrative building.

"The main reason I vetoed the Red Lake funding because it is, in our view, a $25 million project and the Legislature only funded $16 million," Pawlenty said. "You can't do half the project."

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He wants either the full funding or a scaled-down project to meet the money, otherwise "it didn't make sense to include it my bill."

Asked about a second bonding bill yet this session, Pawlenty said he'd left "a little spending capacity on the table but not a lot," leaving the door open a crack.

"As far as I'm concerned, most of the other stuff can wait, but we want to at least listen," he said.

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