President John F. Kennedy once said, "Change is the law of life, and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future." We believe one of our responsibilities at Greater Bemidji is to challenge our community to keep our eyes on the horizon, so we don’t miss the future.

What’s on the horizon for economic development?

Think for a moment the amount of change that has occurred in the past decade. No aspect of life has escaped change, certainly not the economic development industry.

The primary driver of change is technology. In many ways technology has become the great equalizer for communities. In the past, community economic growth was often inherited. Those communities located near a major metro area — with nearby access to workforce, information, vendors and markets — were likely to prosper. Those that weren’t so lucky (like Bemidji) weren’t.

Fast forward to today. Now, virtually every person, company and community has access to talent, information and customers, all at the click of a mouse. This creates unprecedented opportunities -- and threats -- to our region. By leveling the playing field for communities, the great equalizer has created even greater competition.

In a highly competitive environment, successful communities focus on differentiating themselves from other cities and regions. They ask themselves, “Why us”?

So why us Bemidji?

I started asking local folks what made Bemidji special. People mentioned it’s a great place to raise a family, has a good school system, has strong churches and beautiful natural resources. Unfortunately, a majority of Minnesota’s 853 incorporated cities can make the same claim. To be successful, we have to bring more discipline to our response.

In my mind, there are four things that set the greater Bemidji region apart:

  • World class broadband technology -- In our region we are blessed with unrivaled access to technology due to the broadband investments of Paul Bunyan Communications and Midco. Accessing high-speed internet here has become matter of fact for us. It’s like turning a light on -- when we flick the switch we expect it to go on. That is not true throughout the nation. The fact is the greater Bemidji region has one of the nation’s largest all-fiber broadband network, and Beltrami County was named the most wired county in Minnesota. Now that is a big deal.

  • A strong, available workforce -- We are in the midst of the tightest labor market in recorded history. Community after community are at full employment. No doubt the labor market is tight here as well, but not as tight as other regions.

  • Quality of place -- Many communities may have some of the assets Bemidji does, but very few communities our size have all the assets we do. Bemidji has a special balance of small-town beauty and character and regional center amenities. It is rare for a rural regional center to have easy access to both quality natural environment and urban amenities like great local restaurants and a vibrant downtown. A friend called Bemidji “Lumberjack chic.” That captures it perfectly.

  • A spirit of working together -- A collaborative environment matters more than you can imagine in economic development. Through years of hard work and passionate leadership, working together has become part of the DNA of our greater Bemidji region. Most recently, Greater Bemidji joined forces with the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, Visit Bemidji and the Bemidji Downtown Alliance under the Bemidji Alliance. By doing so, each organization acknowledged the power of working together. By aligning ourselves, the Bemidji Alliance has set Bemidji apart from others throughout the upper Midwest. Greater Bemidji is very proud to work in partnership with these outstanding organizations.

The future will become more and more competitive. A book by Jim Clifton of the Gallup organization called “The Coming Jobs War” discusses Gallup’s long-standing poll of the world’s 7 billion people. Historically the top desires the world were shelter, safety, love, peace and freedom. Recently, the top desire of the world flipped to a good job. Clifton argues if communities want to keep up with the world, “all policymakers need to consider economic development every day in everything they do.”

I agree. Every day I feel the increased competition between regions. Differentiating Bemidji is central to our ability to compete for economic development and jobs. As a region, let’s not lose sight of what makes us special -- and what bold ideas can separate us from the pack.

Hengel is the executive director of Greater Bemidji.