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DAVE HENGEL COLUMN: Bemidji Regional Airport: a model of bold community action

The key to the future: build a great community for people to live, raise a family, work or own a business in. Proactively develop the quality of life amenities that bring prosperity and economic growth. Make it easy to answer the question, “Why should I choose Bemidji?”

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A couple months back, I shared with you that the “how-tos” for being successful in economic development have changed dramatically in recent years.

Technology has given businesses and people the freedom to locate virtually anywhere. Because of this, geography (where a community is located on a map) matters less, and place (a community’s character and quality of life) matters more.

Simply put, technology has leveled the playing field for communities.

The key to the future: build a great community for people to live, raise a family, work or own a business in. Proactively develop the quality of life amenities that bring prosperity and economic growth. Make it easy to answer the question, “Why should I choose Bemidji?”

Build. Develop. Be proactive. These are action words. Let me be clear — Bemidji’s continued growth and prosperity won’t come without bold action.

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In fact, it never has.

Today we are enjoying the signature quality of life amenities in Bemidji that were developed through bold action by stewards in Bemidji’s past. My favorite example is our Bemidji Regional Airport.

Few Bemidjians are aware of what a tremendous asset we have in the Bemidji airport. Even more, very few of our community members understand the economic impact our airport has on the rest of our community. Many communities would love to have an airport like ours in their area.

The Bemidji Regional Airport is the fourth busiest commercial airport in the state (only Minneapolis-St. Paul International, Duluth and Rochester exceed Bemidji). A study done by the Minnesota Department of Transportation in 2019 shed some light on the Airport’s impact on our region.

When you think about the Bemidji airport, most think of Bemidji’s twice-daily Delta Airlines flights to MSP. These flights have over 30,000 travelers annually. They not only connect travelers to the Twin Cities but to almost anywhere in the world.

The importance of our Delta flights cannot be overstated, particularly when it comes to economic development. When I talk to companies considering locations for their growth, I share that Bemidji is only a 45-minute flight away from the Twin Cities. This has been a significant factor in locating new companies to Bemidji, most recently Delta Dental.

The airport helps address concerns about our region’s relative remoteness in northern Minnesota. Even more, the ability of our local companies to access customers and markets worldwide is enhanced because of our regular commercial flights to the Twin Cities.

What most folks aren’t aware of is “the rest of the story” at the Bemidji Regional Airport.

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There are currently 10 aviation-related businesses located at the airport. Combining airport staff and businesses located in the airport, the airport supports over 450 jobs in the region and a $20 million payroll. Total economic activity in the Bemidji economy due to the airport is estimated at nearly $58 million.

I recently was looking at my property tax bill for 2022. I will pay $30 to support the Bemidji Regional Airport. At a $58 million economic impact, that is one heck of a return on my investment.

Here is some even better news — the airport is in the midst of work to make the airport area even more enticing to new and expanding aviation-related companies.

Why am I sharing all this information about the airport with you?

The airport didn’t just happen. It took bold action more than 90 years ago to start building what is now the fourth busiest airport in the state.

In 1931, a small group of members of the Bemidji Civic and Commerce Association pushed hard to purchase 160 acres of land. Their vision was to become a hub of aviation and connect Bemidji to the world. Within a decade, the property had grown to 1,600 acres and the rest is history. Today, we benefit from their bold action.

Do you think they faced nay-sayers when they revealed their vision? Of course they did.

Throughout history, every community has both dreamers and what I affectionately call CAVE people — Citizens Against Virtually Everything (truth be told — I stole this from a community leader in northern Beltrami County).

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Both are absolutely critical to successful communities. Dreamers think big and identify opportunities that aren’t readily apparent. CAVE people provide balance — and a dose of reality — which many dreamers need. It’s that interplay in communities that allows only the best of ideas to emerge.

Daniel Burnham, a planner in Chicago, once said, “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will not themselves be realized. Make big plans, aim high in hope and work.”

Our work at Greater Bemidji is in part to “aim high.” In addition to supporting entrepreneurs and small businesses, we push to develop the signature quality of life amenities that our community members 90 years from now will still be enjoying.

We acknowledge that not everyone will agree with the ideas we pursue and embrace the questions and “doses of reality” that we get at times. We support that interplay. When we listen to each other and acknowledge that we are all stewards of Bemidji’s future, great things happen.

Last month, I shared we would be asking our community “Which Way, Bemidji?” on several key questions. So here is our first choice: should continue to strive to be the state’s emerging regional center? To become the “Star of the North” will take some bold action. Where do you stand?

Dave Hengel is the executive director of Greater Bemidji Economic Development. He can be reached at (218) 444-5757 or dhengel@greaterbemidji.com.

Related Topics: CITY OF BEMIDJI
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