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Bemidji arena passes first bonding test

BEMIDJI -- The Bemidji Regional Events Center proposal passed its first major hurdle Tuesday night, included as part of a $965 million state building projects bonding bill approved by the Senate Capital Investment Committee.

BEMIDJI -- The Bemidji Regional Events Center proposal passed its first major hurdle Tuesday night, included as part of a $965 million state building projects bonding bill approved by the Senate Capital Investment Committee.

The full $22 million requested by the city toward constructing the $50 million facility was included in the Senate bill, which also includes a number of other area projects for Bemidji State University, Red Lake, Gonvick and Waskish, Minn.

"This was certainly one of the bigger hurdles down here," Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann said Tuesday night as he attended the Capital Investment Committee where the bill was presented.

Its chairman, Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said he included the events center in his bill only after BSU and the city reached an accord. BSU's NCAA Division I hockey program would be the major tenant in the center, which also would serve as an events and convention center.

"That's a major, major step in the right direction," Lehmann said of Langseth putting the project in the bill. "I'm very appreciative of the fact that not that long ago we were looking just to get a placeholder (in the bill) and this time around we get the full $22 million included in it. That's a very promising sign."

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Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, author of the provision, also called it a promising sign.

"I'm so grateful to Sen. Langseth for prioritizing this project," Olson said earlier Tuesday in a telephone interview. "I know how difficult it's been."

It was no easy matter, she said, as the original proposal asked the Legislature to fund 40 percent of a $35 million project, or $14 million. And $3 million of that was set aside for planning and design, which the city is now doing.

"It's taken a lot of work to get that number up to $22 million," Olson said. "I would like to thank Sen. Langseth for believing in this project and believing in the community of Bemidji, that this will be a wise investment in something that will be used to put people to work, because that is the basis and the goal of the bonding bill."

The Bemidji project helps fulfill a goal of promoting long-term sustained economic development in key areas around the state, Olson said.

Olson said Sens. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, and Dave Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, played a role in lobbying Langseth for the project. She also said people from the community also played a key role, such as a group of BSU students who spent Monday at the Capitol lobbying for the project.

"By moving it (the events center) to the south shore allows us to address a lot of the concerns of those who were opposed to it but wanted parks and trails and those kind of amenities on the south shore," Mayor Lehmann said. "By moving this down there, I think we're going to be able to satisfy those concerns, because we'll be able to attract more investment in the entire area which will allow us to do the park and trails along with the regional events center."

Lehmann said the community as a whole is much more in favor of the project than they were in the past. With the measure in the Senate bill, "the community stands a much greater chance of having a successful events center."

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The House has yet to compile its bonding bill, but it has in the past supported BSU's push for a new hockey arena several times. And while Gov. Tim Pawlenty supported the project and its $3 million bonding request a year ago, he didn't included it in his bonding bill this year.

"I haven't gotten any word from the governor's office yet at all, so I don't know what to expect from the governor," Lehmann said. "I just know we're going to be working every angle we can to encourage the support that's needed so that the governor himself will support when it gets to his desk."

While Langseth is counting on extra room in his $965 million bonding bill since the Legislature on Monday overrode Pawlenty's veto of a $6.6 billion transportation funding package, negating the governor proposed $416 million for transportation bonding in his bill, Pawlenty says think again.

"When the deficit gets announced on Thursday, and we have this debt service limit of 3 percent of revenues projected for the biennium and revenues are declining, the $965 million will now be a lower number," Pawlenty told Capitol reporters in a news conference that included outstate reporters via telephone.

"If transportation is important, and it is, I don't want to see that transportation number in the bonding bill eroded," he said, "particularly if the substitute projects are going to be lesser priority projects."

Pawlenty said he would evaluate the Legislature's final bonding bill "when it gets here on the merits."

Olson, however, said the veto override "has certainly made it easier to have additional money available."

Another key piece is also on its way. Senate Taxes Committee Chairman Bakk told a Bemidji business group last week that he plans to send two omnibus tax bills through -- with the first one coming early with non-controversial items including Bemidji's request to extend its half-cent city sales tax to pay for events center construction.

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"This is going to provide a huge economic driver for our community, and need something that triggers that kind of growth and investment in the Bemidji area," Olson said. "I hope that the community will continue to work on the governor's office to support the bonding bill."

The Senate bonding bill also provides:

-- BSU Sattgast science building addition and renovation, $5.933 million in both the Senate and governor's bill.

-- Minnesota State Colleges and Universities property acquisition at BSU, Fond du Lac Tribal Community College, Minnesota State Community College-Moorhead and Vermilion Community College, $6.73 million in the Senate bill, not in governor's bill. BSU is requesting $2 million for the old Bemidji High School property at 15th Street.

-- Paul Bunyan State Trail acquisition and work from Guthrie to Walker, $2 million in the Senate bill, not in governor's bill.

-- Big Bog State Recreation Area interpretive center at Waskish, $1.6 million in the Senate bill, not in governor's bill.

-- Gonvick Northern Emergency Training Center, $55,000 in Senate bill, not in governor's bill.

-- Red Lake School District improvements to several school buildings, $32 million in Senate bill, not in governor's bill. The district had requested $59 million.

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The Bemidji Pioneer and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

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