Prince seeks a new way forward with business community
On Tuesday, June 22, Bemidji Mayor Jorge Prince and City Manager Nate Mathews met with several business owners to respond to concerns and open an ongoing dialogue.
BEMIDJI -- Bemidji Mayor Jorge Prince weighed in on economic topics Tuesday night during a forum full of local business owners.
The forum, set up in a question and answer format, was organized by the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce. Joining Prince to help answer questions and comments was Bemidji City Manager Nate Mathews.
Prince, who is also the chief financial officer of LaValley Industries in Bemidji, became mayor after winning the 2020 election race over former city council member Michael Meehlhause. He succeeded Rita Albrecht in the role, who chose not to seek another term and instead made an unsuccessful bid for the Minnesota Senate.
A question raised early on in the event by moderator Ryan Zemek, Headwaters Regional Development Commission economic development director was in relation to a possible rift that has occurred between the business community and the city of Bemidji. Prince said this friction was likely built over time on an individual level.
"Somebody had an experience with the city that didn't turn out the right way they wanted it to for whatever reason," Prince said. "I'm not here to say whether those stories are right or wrong. What I do know is I don't have a time machine to fix wherever this narrative started, I can only focus on moving forward.
"I hear a lot of conversations about the past," said Prince. "But I look at our city council, and we have four new members and another member who's been there for just two years. So it's like a whole new council. The only thing I can say is we have to figure out how to move forward and I think we're taking the first step here, right now. That's part of what this is, having the dialogue and engaging in conversation."
Mathews, who's been with the city since spring 2015, said an issue that's caused some discontent among the business community is rulemaking by municipal entities.
"We do have a healthy, ideal business community, a revolving loan fund to help businesses and very strong community banking," Mathews said. "The negative narrative about us vs. them that I've heard about, from my work experience, I don't see that. To answer the original question, where does this division come from, it has to do with the community having some indigestion still with planning and zoning."
Those concerns related to both city rules and regulations set by the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board were brought up during the meeting by business owners.
"We want a prosperous, safe and healthy Bemidji," Prince said. "As it relates to business, my own personal belief has been that we want the tax base to grow. When we grow the tax base, that provides more revenue to provide greater services to the citizens of our community and more opportunities for employment.
"At the same time, we have rules and regulations," said Prince. "Some of them are from the city, but many of them are set at the state and federal level, and we have to follow them. So, we have to be able to do all of those things for our community."
In his comments, Mathews did say he has spoken with Prince about some of the codes and rules that could be reviewed and said businesses should be involved in the conversation.
A few other issues brought up Tuesday were specific to the city's downtown region. One was the concern over the homeless population in Bemidji.
In his response, Prince said it's a challenge because the city lacks municipal departments to handle social issues. However, Prince said the city can take steps by building partnerships for solutions. An example he gave was the city signing a grant on behalf of the Nameless Coalition for the Homeless for a potential daytime shelter.
Another matter brought forward was the amount of parking available to customers downtown. In his comments, Mathews said a parking study is underway to determine if more parking spots can be established on some of the downtown streets.