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DAVE HENGEL COLUMN: Great communities are built, not born

The assets that bring prosperity and economic growth are not inherited. Like our all-fiber broadband network, key quality of life and economic development amenities can be identified and built.

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Former New York Yankee catcher and amateur philosopher Yogi Berra once said, “The future just ain’t what it used to be.”

As I move on in my life and my career, I look back and it’s clear to me Yogi was right on. The future, and the present for that matter, sure looks different than the past.

This is not just true in our everyday lives, but in the life of our communities as well. In the past decade, the foundation of growth and prosperity as a community has been shaken, and the “how-tos” of success have changed dramatically.

Why? What drove this change?

The primary driver has been technology, which has created both incredible opportunities and challenges for communities worldwide. Since technology has allowed both businesses and people to locate virtually anywhere, geography (where we are located on a map) matters less, and place (a community’s character and quality of life) matters more.

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Let me explain.

For the first 25 years of my career, economic development in Bemidji was focused on cheap land and labor and access to natural resources. We were hindered by things out of our control — things like our remoteness, not being located in a major metropolitan area (reducing our access to large markets, resources and talent) and the lack of an interstate highway running through our community.

Thanks to technological innovations, none of these matters as much. We aren’t remote — we are connected via Zoom and other technology. We have access to metropolitan markets and resources all with the click of a mouse. While logistics have not reduced in importance, our largest “interstate” is our broadband network.

And let me remind everyone, the greater Bemidji region has the best all-fiber network in the nation. Thanks to the investment over the past decade by Paul Bunyan Communications, every home and business in our region has up to 10-gigabit service while other communities (including metropolitan areas) are struggling to gain basic broadband service.

In other words, Bemidji is ahead of the game.

Today, great communities are built, not born. The assets that bring prosperity and economic growth are not inherited. Like our all-fiber broadband network, key quality of life and economic development amenities can be identified and built.

Technology has no doubt leveled the playing field between urban and rural. If communities like Bemidji start playing by the new rules of community success, that is.

The assets and amenities that are critical for future growth will vary by community. We can certainly see some commonalities from other successful regions — a vibrant downtown, strong broadband, shared opportunity, a variety of housing options, outdoor and indoor recreational opportunities and a welcoming culture, for example.

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In the end, though, it’s vital our community makes the decision on what amenities matter to our current and future growth, not a single person or organization.

While the ingredients (assets and amenities) to building a successful community may vary by community, the key steps in the recipe are consistent. Look across the nation, great communities all have had collective, strategic, sustained civic efforts.

  • Collective: Great communities have only one, common vision for their future. The public, private and non-profit sectors are aligned and all moving in the same direction. That alignment creates exponential progress and reduces community infighting on the little things that are insignificant to the future. 
  • Strategic: I once heard the saying, “It doesn’t matter how fast you are climbing if your ladder is on the wrong wall.”  Great communities are thoughtful about their future and honest about what they can and cannot become. While that is easier said than done, a disciplined approach is absolutely essential.
  • Sustained: Our society and community leaders are so focused on today’s issues and challenges. They forget to look up sometimes. Great communities maintain a long-term focus amidst the day-to-day challenges. As my friend retired BSU President Jim Bensen likes to say, they plan “from the future” with an eye on their community vision.
  • Civic Focus: A civic focus implies a sense that we are all in this together. Great communities have a culture of working together, focusing on the shared values community members have in common. They have learned to embrace differing ideas and opinions as a strength, not a threat.

In summary, the economic foundation has been shaken. The rules of the game have changed. Our old beliefs about how to grow our community have been flipped on their head. And future success is going to require a long-term focus and a collective, “we’re all in this together” attitude from our community leaders.
Does this scare anyone? Is anyone worried about what this means for Bemidji? I’m not.

I think Bemidji is exceptionally well-positioned to grow and prosper in the coming years.

From my vantage point, I see a community that is thoughtful about its future. I see the public sector, private sector and non-profits working together every day to better our community.

I see a community respectfully having difficult conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion. I see pride in our community and a commitment to community stewardship.

We have what it takes to ensure our community grows and prospers. In the coming months, we will discuss some of the difficult choices we as a community need to address about our future. I’ll be asking, “Which way, Bemidji?”

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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