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Carnegie spared: Supporters allowed time to raise funds to preserve Bemidji's historic library

Carnegie supporters participate in a rally Sunday afternoon in front of the historic building. Pioneer Photo/Laurie Swenson

Rarely, the Bemidji City Council will receive a smattering of applause after making a decision. On Monday, following a surprisingly unanimous vote toward preserving the city's 102-year-old Carnegie library, the overflow audience responded with prolonged, enthusiastic applause.

"On behalf of all the citizens of Bemidji, young and old, thank you very, very much. Thank you," said Mike Bredon, who addressed the council on a related matter moments after the vote.

Bredon, the executive director of Upstream TV, the city's community access television station, was among many who fought for the preservation of the Carnegie, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The vote allows supporters time to form a committee and develop fundraising goals and a timeline.

Supporters filled the council chambers to capacity and spilled out into the hallway, watching discussion on TVs and reacting to the vote as happily as those inside.

"We have a building that obviously many people here are passionate about," said Councilor Greg Negard, one of four councilors who officially changed his position on the Carnegie.

The council has twice in seven months voted to plan for a future Library Park that would not include the Carnegie, voting 6-1 to that effect in September and then 4-3 in January against a motion to reconsider its position.

But in a presentation led by Upstream TV last week, the council appeared willing to reassess the issue.

Rita Albrecht, the one councilor who had not previously voted against the Carnegie, commended the council for remaining open to changing its position.

"To really empower this group," she said, "I think it's important to give them some additional time."

Upstream TV last week proposed relocating to the Carnegie, partnering with the city's government access station and renovating the building into a television studio.

The council chose to separate Upstream TV from the Carnegie discussion, first considering the future of the historic library.

Negard said later in the meeting that up until two weeks ago, he had only heard from his constituents that they didn't want to see city money put into saving the Carnegie.

"We have to rely on the feedback that we get from the people we represent," he said. "If we don't hear from you, we have to go by what we hear. Without that feedback I don't know if I would have changed my mind."

The vote includes stipulations that the Carnegie will be moved at least 10 feet back from Paul Bunyan Drive, that the necessary funds would be raised in full so the project would not be done in phases and that the park-planning process for Lake Bemidji waterfront renovations will continue. The city will contribute $100,000 to the effort, based on what it would have spent to demolish the building.

Moving the building will de-list it from the National Register, but Albrecht noted that it also will allow the building to reclaim some of its history. When it was built, the Carnegie had an expansive front yard and entrance.

"I think we're on the right track," said Mayor Dave Larson at the end of the meeting. "I'm excited about it. I really am."

Public comment was not officially taken on the matter, but two women referenced their support for historic preservation during the portion of the public comment portion of the meeting.

Sharon Fruetel said she is part of a group that is working to preserve and protect part of the demolished Bemidji High School.

"It's too late for the high school," she said. "But it's not too late for other historic buildings in Bemidji."

Kathryn Lavelle said the life of a town is much like the life of a person, but a person carries with him letters and stories of his past.

"Like a person, a city cannot move forward unless it knows where it's been," she said. "We need our history just as much as we need our progress."