DAVE HENGEL COLUMN: Speaking to Bemidji’s future

In listening to our community, we believe that Bemidji’s shared vision is to be the state’s emerging regional center that balances regional center amenities with small-town beauty and character.


Beethoven’s composition "C-sharp Minor Quartet, Opus 131" is widely considered one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. The back story behind its creation is fascinating and is something our community can learn from.

In his book "Servant Leadership," Robert Greenleaf shared the background story. The composition was dramatically different than anything Beethoven had ever written — very atypical and unusual even for Beethoven.

According to legend, after hearing it, a friend said to Beethoven, “Ludwig, what has happened? We don’t understand you anymore.” Beethoven was said to have replied, “I have said all that I have to say to my contemporaries; now I am speaking to the future.”

I am often in situations where I am asked to explain what Greater Bemidji (and economic developers) do. Even more often though, I find myself trying to explain why we do what we do, particularly when it comes to Greater Bemidji.

Why does Greater Bemidji’s action plan look dramatically different than that of other economic developers?


The simple answer is we are speaking to Bemidji’s future.

What is that future? In listening to our community, we believe that Bemidji’s shared vision is to be the state’s emerging regional center. A place that successfully balances regional center amenities with small-town beauty and character.

A community of shared prosperity with an inclusive economy that provides opportunities for all our community members — especially those that have historically been underserved and underrepresented.

A unique regional center that, as it grows and develops, doesn’t lose what we love about Bemidji — our beautiful natural environment, our vibrant downtown and arts scene, our safety, and most of all, our sense of community.

Former Bemidji State University legendary coach Bob Peters captured the vision best. He said, “Bemidji will be the star of the north, a national model of community success.”

We believe that’s the vision our community desires and will rally around. And it is that “future Bemidji” that the work we do at Greater Bemidji is “speaking to.”

Agreeing on vision is important, as my friend and mentor Jim Bensen says, “you plan from the future." A shared vision provides a centering focus. It's far easier (and less controversial) to chart a course when you know and agree on where you are headed.

Our course to the future at Greater Bemidji — our action plan — is clear and all targeted to our shared vision. The following is a brief snapshot of what we do.


Recently Greater Bemidji reaffirmed its strategic direction. It is focused on five key focus areas:

  • Investing in place-making initiatives: Placemaking means creating places that strengthen the connections between people and their community.  It involves investing in amenities that make a community a great place to live and raise a family. That is why Greater Bemidji is driving, in partnership with Sanford Health and the city of Bemidji, to redevelop our rail corridor and develop a state-of-the-art wellness center — something our community has desired for many years. It will make our community a more attractive place to live for our community members and those looking for a new place to call home. Its placemaking initiatives like the wellness center will position Bemidji to grow and prosper.
  • Support entrepreneurs and new business startups: Through our LaunchPad, we provide free resources to community members interested in starting their own businesses. We provide coaches and mentors, technical expertise, space, finance and other resources to support our startups.
  • Grow, attract, and retain talent: The workforce is the greatest long-term challenge facing our economy. Demographic trends predicted this challenge, allowing us to begin addressing workforce concerns over a decade ago. Initiatives such as 218 Relocate and our own training center — the Minnesota Innovation Initiative — are intentional efforts to ensure our community has the workforce we need now and in the future. Our workforce focus also pushes us to address childcare, transportation, housing and other challenges that prevent people from participating in our economy.
  • Encourage business growth and expansion: We support the locally-owned businesses (large and small) that are the backbone of our community. We provide business and technical support, capital and incentives all targeted to supporting their long-term growth, critical to our community’s future economic health.
  • Promote the region to growing companies: Finally, we continue to promote our region as a great place to do business. Recently, we rebranded Greater Bemidji to appeal to outside investors and corporations and launched a targeted marketing campaign directly to expanding companies. 

These five focus areas were strategically chosen to move us in the direction of our shared vision. In the coming months, I’ll dive deeper into our work in these focus areas — tying them directly to our shared vision for Bemidji’s future.
One last thought about Bemidji’s future. Not everyone is comfortable with change. I once heard a presenter quip, “In Minnesota, the only thing worse than the current situation is any change to it.” No doubt the status quo has its own inertia.

As I listen to community members who are uncomfortable with change, it is based on a fear of losing their community in the process. It comes from a love of the place they call home. That is to be respected.

I just truly believe it is not an either/or issue. We can grow, change, and prosper AND retain our unique identity and sense of community. That is exactly the goal of the Greater Bemidji.

I’m always interested in hearing from our community. What ideas do you have for our region? Share them with me.

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

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