DAVE HENGEL COLUMN: What makes Bemidji so special?

Many of us are fond of our community and know it is a great place to live, work and raise a family. Let’s be honest though, there are others throughout the state that believe the same of their community.

We are part of The Trust Project.

During my career, I have had the opportunity to learn from some great leaders.

One of them was Cliff Tweedale, the now-retired Executive Director of the Headwaters Regional Development Commission. Cliff is a passionate and strategic leader with a knack for sharing stories to bring into focus key challenges and opportunities.

One example remains vivid in my mind. As he and I were challenging community leaders to think about their competitive advantage, Cliff shared a story of his high school friend who wanted to go to Harvard. His friend had used his high school years to build his “resume” for getting into Harvard — taking advantage of every opportunity he could to lead, volunteer and excel.

After applying, Cliff’s friend was required to be interviewed by a Harvard alumnus. In the interview, the alumnus said (I’m paraphrasing), “I see you were top five in your class of 500 graduates, a three-sport athlete, captain of two of them, a member of the All-State Orchestra, and were named 'Youth Volunteer of the Year' by your local United Way. Your references are from some of the most esteemed members of your school and community.” With that, the alumnus threw down the application and said, “So what makes you so special?”

What makes us so special, Bemidji?


Many of us are fond of our community and know it is a great place to live, work and raise a family. Let’s be honest though, there are others throughout the state that believe the same of their community.

The challenge isn’t just to share what makes Bemidji a great place but instead to ask what differentiates us from other great places. In other words, what’s Bemidji’s competitive advantage?

This is an important question for us at Greater Bemidji. As we look to attract and recruit companies and a workforce to the region, we know we are far more effective if our message is targeted and impactful.

Our recruitment efforts over the past several years, especially our work with new remote workers in our region, have given us opportunities to listen to what others value in Bemidji and refine our community story.

Our message to recruits is clear and compelling. There are three things that collectively set us apart:

  • Our beautiful natural environment.
  • The vibrancy of our economy and the amenities and opportunities that come with an emerging regional center.
  • Our cost of living relative to metropolitan areas.

We're unique

Sometimes we forget how truly spectacular the natural environment is in the region. I was reminded last Sunday as I sat at the rooftop patio at Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge. The sun was shining, boats were cruising, families were enjoying time on the water, and the temperature was absolutely perfect.

We are in the lakes and pines region of Minnesota with public parks and trails that afford all of our community members access. It is hard to find a more beautiful place to live than the Bemidji area.

While there are many beautiful places, not all have the vibrant economy we have. We are Minnesota’s emerging regional center and that comes with certain amenities. We have big box and quaint boutique shopping opportunities. Our downtown is hopping. We are a foodie town, with what must be the largest number of locally owned restaurants per capita in northern Minnesota.


Are there other rural regions with more arts and culture than we have here? Most of all we have available jobs that offer careers and a desirable lifestyle for our families.

Many in our region successfully combine our vibrant economy and our natural environment to create a truly unique experience. As the CEO of one of our technology companies likes to say, he can leave his hi-tech job in the evening and, within five minutes, be home paddling his kayak on the lake he lives on. Wow. That’s unique.

Having a community with a beautiful natural environment and vibrant economy is all well and good, unless, of course, you can’t afford to live there.

In today’s economy, particularly young people and families are being driven out of metropolitan areas because they simply can’t afford the cost of living. We hear this from many remote workers relocating here via our 218 Relocate initiative. It is a clear competitive advantage for Bemidji that the cost of living in the region remains low compared to that of metro areas.

No place I'd rather live

That’s our pitch — our region is a unique blend of a vibrant, emerging regional center amidst a beautiful natural environment that remains affordable to live, work and raise a family. I’m proud to share this with anyone looking to relocate to a new community.

Yet at Greater Bemidji, we believe our greatest competitive advantage as a region is not any of these assets. Rather we believe it’s how we treat those interested in relocating to our community.

An analogy will help explain what I mean. In the early days of rental cars, Avis launched what I believe may be the most ingenious marketing campaign ever. At the time, Hertz was far and away the largest rental car company. Avis recognized Hertz had the lion’s share of the market, yet they also realized they were next in line among the other companies.

Their response was to launch a campaign promoting the fact that, “We’re No. 2.” But that isn’t the ingenious part. It what’s came next in their campaign ads. Their tagline was “But we try harder because we have to.” Isn’t that great?


They owned the fact that they were far behind Hertz, but they spun it into a strength by sharing they try harder. They were insinuating they try harder because Hertz doesn’t have to.

In many ways, despite our community assets, in Bemidji, we’re still No. 2. We can’t take anything for granted. Opportunities rarely come to us without significant effort on our part. We have to work hard and work together to encourage our growth and development.

As a community, we try harder because we have to. I believe it's Bemidji’s most important quality, and our most appealing characteristic for companies, workers and families looking for a new home.

Let me be clear, we aren’t perfect. I’m aware some community members would disagree with my assessment of Bemidji. We have challenges and things to improve on. Yet this doesn’t diminish the fact we truly live in a special place. There is no place I’d rather live, work and raise my family.

Carrying on my theme of “Which Way, Bemidji?” do we have our promotional pitch right? Are there uniquely Bemidji assets that we missed? I’d love to hear from you.

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

More columns from Dave Hengel

Related Topics: CITY OF BEMIDJI
What To Read Next
"Church worship now competes with everything from professional sports to kids activities to household chores. ... we can either have a frank conversation about what church can be, or we can continue to watch the pews empty in cherished houses of worship across the country."
When Katie Pinke directed her daughter to a beef expert in preparation for her speech meet, it made her think about the need for trusted ag sources of information.
Casey is the well-behaved dog that normally stays out of the limelight.
As we embark on a new year, I wanted to review with our community the course that we are on as we move into 2023.