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DAVE HENGEL COLUMN: Looking back, and forward, on our community growth

As we move forward, we want to shine a light on what I believe is our region’s biggest challenge. Even in a time of growth, not everyone in our region is sharing the benefits of the growth.

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"Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push — in just the right place — it can be tipped.” - Malcolm Gladwell

By nearly every measure, 2021 was a strong year for the greater Bemidji regional economy.

In the midst of the uncertainty of the pandemic, our economic indicators are performing well. Employment is up 1,125 jobs over 2020, an increase of nearly 5%.

The unemployment rate is back to pre-pandemic levels (3.7%) and the workforce is growing at a strong clip. Construction activity, retail sales and tourism activity have all increased substantially over last year.

Greater Bemidji — your economic development partner — has had a strong year as well. Our organization’s strong board leadership, regional partners and community financial support provide a foundation that allows Greater Bemidji to address community needs and take aim at opportunities to grow our region and promote prosperity.

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It allowed us to quickly pivot from providing support to our region’s small businesses during the economic shutdowns to launching new and innovative initiatives like 218 Relocate, the Rail Corridor Redevelopment, Sports and Wellness Complex and our childcare development activity.

In his book “The Tipping Point” Malcolm Gladwell describes how rapid change — whether ideas, products or brands — spread similar to epidemics. He says, “Epidemics grow and reach a boiling point or critical mass, at which point they explode and turn into an epidemic. That threshold is called the tipping point.”

Just as epidemics, ideas and brands can reach a tipping point, we believe a regional economy can as well. Wwe feel like the greater Bemidji region is on the tipping point of a period of exponential growth and prosperity.

Our responsibility at Greater Bemidji is to continue to move our region in the direction of the tipping point. That is why we push on bold initiatives like the sports and wellness complex and the Rail Corridor redevelopment.

It is why we drive for change at our local and state levels to make us more business and workforce-friendly. And it is why we are doubling down on our commitment to serve the entrepreneurs and growing small businesses in the region.

We are focused on moving the region’s economy forward, no matter how difficult the opportunity or challenge. We are driven by Gladwell’s belief that “with the slightest push— in just the right place — it can be tipped.”

Looking ahead

Recently, the Greater Bemidji Board of Directors took some time to plan for our future strategic direction. We looked at local and national trends and their potential impact on our region’s growth and identified what opportunities and challenges that may emerge.

The retreat affirmed our strategic focus areas. At the same time, it uncovered questions that we as a region need to grapple with.

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In the coming years, we will focus our work and resources on the following focus areas:

  • Promoting the region: We know that the Bemidji area is a great place to live, work, raise a family and own a business.  We will continue to share Bemidji’s story and promote the region.
  • Supporting business growth and small businesses: It’s important that our region is a great place to do business.  We have resources to support all area businesses, small and large, all without cost to our local businesses. We are here to help.
  • Encouraging entrepreneurship and new business startups: We want to be of service to anyone looking to start a business in our area. Our LaunchPad supports startups with space, business planning, training, technical support, financing, mentoring and many more services.
  • Growing, attracting and retaining a strong workforce: Workforce has become the limiting factor to economic growth. Ensuring we have a growing workforce will remain a clear focus of our work for years to come.
  • Developing signature quality-of-life amenities: Ultimately, companies and people can pick their location of choice more than ever before. Why choose the Bemidji area? Signature quality-of-life amenities like the proposed sports and wellness complex matter to our long-term economic growth.

As we move forward, we want to shine a light on what I believe is our region’s biggest challenge. Even in a time of growth, not everyone in our region is sharing the benefits of the growth. Today, roughly one-quarter of our region’s families earn less than $35,000 annually. Despite strong job growth, nearly 1,000 county residents are unemployed.
There is also a clear ethnic and racial dichotomy as well. In Bemidji, more than 1,600 of our residents are Native Americans. Of those, 53% live in poverty. While it is difficult to find accurate statistics, it is very clear that unemployment in our area is substantially higher for Indigenous community members.

President Kennedy once said, “A rising tide raises all boats.” While I agree in theory, I don’t believe this happens naturally. We have a responsibility at Greater Bemidji and as a community to do what we can to open the doors of opportunity to all our community members. We need to ensure that, as we grow and prosper as a region, the benefits of that growth are available to all.

The challenge is how? What specific things can we do to address the growing disparity between the have and have-nots? While we at Greater Bemidji acknowledge we have a role and a responsibility, we don’t have the answers. That is where our community comes in.

So I invite you to share with us. What ideas do you have? What can we as a community do? I am looking forward to engaging the broader community around this important question.

Check out www.launchpadbemidji.com/events/ to see upcoming opportunities for entrepreneurs and small businesses at Greater Bemidji and the LaunchPad.

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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