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Bemidji: Event center's future could hinge on council race outcomes

BEMDIJI Nancy Erickson had decided not to seek re-election to the Bemidji City Council. She did not want to be a part of the council that would be responsible for the realization of the events center plan. But, Ward 1 Councilor Onen Markeson, an ...


Nancy Erickson had decided not to seek re-election to the Bemidji City Council. She did not want to be a part of the council that would be responsible for the realization of the events center plan.

But, Ward 1 Councilor Onen Markeson, an events center proponent, then announced that he would not seek re-election.

And Erickson saw an opportunity.

"The events have unfolded as such that there is a legitimate opportunity to turn this thing around," she said.


Erickson decided to run against incumbent Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann.

With four seats of the seven-member City Council up for election next week - mayor and wards 1, 3 and 5 - it is possible that the 4-3 council majority in favor of the events center will turn.

"I'm more worried about the events center than my own race," said Ward 3 Councilor Ron Johnson. "If I could lose my race and still get the events center, I would make that trade."

But that isn't likely.

Three of four "yes" votes on the council are on this year's ballot: mayor and wards 1 and 3.

Also up this year is Ward 5, which is Erickson's current seat. The two candidates, Greg Negard and Rodney Witt, both have stated that they are against the current events center plan.

So mathematically speaking, events center fans need to sweep mayor, Ward 1 and Ward 3.

"I'm concerned now that it's not going to go through," Lehmann said.


The events center and associated parking is planned to cover about 24 acres in the center of a 145-acre development along the south shore of Lake Bemidji. The shoreline is to be reserved as public space and may include a new public beach and the Paul Bunyan State Trail. To the west, there is a planned hotel and renovated Nymore Beach. Commercial development, including retail, is planned throughout the development, along with housing overlooking Lake Bemidji (but without lakeshore property).

Lehmann said there is no Plan B for the development if the events center is canceled.

"The events center is going to anchor the whole thing and spur development of that area," he said.

Erickson supports the purchase of the south shore - although she does question whether the city needed to buy all 145 acres - and believes the development should include retail and private development in addition to housing.

As for the events center land, however, she said the city should obtain public input.

"The public process should now take place on those 24 acres," she said.

Johnson tells a joke that illustrates a similar situation: A veterinarian decides to go into the taxidermy business. He hangs a sign on his door that says, "Either way you'll get your dog back."

"The point is the result might be the same, but one (choice) might be better than the other," he said, saying that the events center is a needed component of the south shore development.


Ward 3 candidate Chuck Stombaugh does not support either the events center or the purchase of the south shore.

"They bought a large amount of land - and I don't think the city should be a land developer," he said, citing Northview Apartments as an example as to why not. The city owned the apartment complex, but ultimately decided to sell it after it began running at a deficit.

On Nov. 7, 2006, the public voted to approve, by 44 votes, an extension of the city's half-cent sales tax to fund an events center. Included on the ballot was information about the city's plans for a $35 million events center, although that wording was not part of the actual ballot question.

The council voted for a $50 million facility in May 2007 after the design team presented plans for a $76.8 million complex.

The project changed again in late 2007 when the council announced its intention to buy property along the south shore of Lake Bemidji. The events center was relocated from downtown to the new development.

The specific costs of the events center then became a bit muddled.

Opponents rallied against a $90.7 million project.

Proponents argue that $90.7 million is the cost of the entire south shore development, of which the events center is just one piece. The events center alone, they say, is $46.5 million.


Ward 1 candidate Waldhausen, who says he supports the plan, said he has gone back and forth on the project. He initially was for it in 2006 and then began questioning its feasibility as the numbers kept rising. But, then Leo A. Daly was directed to cut $10 million from the plans.

"That's when I knew I could support it 100 percent," he said. "I always wanted to support it ... but I wasn't willing to support it with an open checkbook."

Another point of contention is Bemidji State University's role in the complex. The hockey programs are planned to be the anchor tenant and will pay the city for the use of the complex.

"Hockey cannot be a priority of the city," Erickson said.

Others argue that the city only was able to secure state funding for the project because of BSU's involvement.

"That partnership got us $20 million," said Lehmann, referencing bonding dollars. "BSU is coming to the table as a partner in this."

Candidates also differ on their opinions of operations and maintenance.

According to a feasibility study done by Conventions, Sports & Leisure, the events center will operate at a deficit between $323,000 and $667,000 a year.


The city plans to cover those deficits through possible revenue sources such as naming rights, parking fees, ticket surcharges and selling or leasing of the former fairgrounds land.

"The numbers are not in place, and I'm appalled," said Ward 1 candidate Rachelle Houle, who opposes the project. "It's too great a risk for our city's budget."

Waldhausen notes that the O and M costs also include $200,000 a year for capital expenses.

He also said the city funds other services that don't make revenue, such as parks and trails and roads.

"You have the weigh the benefits of doing this," he said.

Proponents also say the events center would spur more economic growth in the city, and possibly bring to town people who will later choose to vacation and/or live in Bemidji.

If the project is scrapped, the bonding money allocated to Bemidji would need to be returned to the state.

Lehmann said that move alone would not sit well with legislators who passed over other bonding requests in favor of Bemidji.


"If we do not do this, the memory will not fade anytime soon," Lehmann said.

Erickson, conversely, believes the Legislature would be understanding, recognizing the current economic situation and the cost of the project on the city's taxpayers.

"I would think the Legislature should laud us for this action," she said.

The city was first given $3 million from the state in 2006 for planning money toward a facility. Erickson said that money was used wisely.

"We used that money to discover that what we had presented to the public was not a thing like what the reality is," she said, explaining that the project has simply grown beyond the city's capability.

Negard has a plan in mind that, he believes, would reunite the city and keep the project alive in some form.

"I still think we need something, but it's just gotten out of hand," he said.

He wants to use the $20 million in bonding dollars to have BSU construct its own arena or renovate the John Glas Fieldhouse to host the hockey programs. The university then would be responsible on its own for operations and maintenance.

Meanwhile, he would like the city to use sales-tax funds to build an events center with conference space and a community center.

"Something for the whole community," he said.

Proponents of the current events center project say Negard's plan won't work, and that the bonding money was awarded because of the partnership between the university and city. Without that, they say, the state would cancel the funding - and possibly the sales-tax extension.

Negard said he has talked to some councilors about the plan, but does not plan to present it formally unless he is elected to the council.

"They've drawn a line in the sand and no one is willing to budge," he said. "People need to give a little and talk a little.

"We need something here. We obviously need something here. But, do we need to divide the community because of it?"

The division is worrisome to Witt, who also is running for Ward 5. He said the fact that question has become, "Are you for or against the events center?" is disheartening.

"This issue has divided the community more than anything in the time that I lived here," he said.

He blames the division on the leadership of the council, which has said over the past year that no decision has been cast in stone, that the project could be stopped at any time.

"And that turns out not to be true," he said. "There has been a lack of leadership."

The events center can be canceled - no bid has been awarded. Consultants and those doing work on the city's behalf would be paid for their services already rendered if the council does vote to stop the project.

Erickson hopes that will happen. She said she would support such action even at her first meeting as mayor, if she is elected, in January.

Every minute this continues to move forward is costing the city money, she said.

"I would absolutely encourage the ceasing of that money being spent," she said.

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