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Looking for redevelopment:Bemidji Council considers rail corridor

The Bemidji City Council on Monday decided a taskforce could look beyond city-owned properties (indicated in red) as it examines the downtown rail corridor as a potential redevelopment site. The taskforce now will also consider the areas in blue and the Pamida and Union Square properties. Stating the decision should not be taken as an indication that the city is looking to purchase additional land, staff said property owners are welcome to take part in the entire process as well.

By Bethany Wesley / Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — As a taskforce was named to examine the rail corridor downtown, the Bemidji City Council authorized its members to look beyond city-owned properties to also consider neighboring properties. In doing so, however, council members repeatedly said their decision should not be interpreted as an indication of their desire to purchase additional property or to support more restrictive zoning policies. “Including it for planning purposes is a smart idea,” said Mayor Rita Albrecht. The council in January voted to support The Rail Corridor Redevelopment Project to more closely consider the rail corridor for redevelopment. The city owns about 20 acres of land that was a former rail corridor between Lake Irving and downtown Bemidji. The site, at one time considered the prime location for the events center, has long been targeted for redevelopment, but it would be considered a Brownfield site, making it less attractive to potential developers. A taskforce — consisting of at least a dozen community members plus staff — plans to work toward crafting a redevelopment plan that would include an examination of the site’s benefits and challenges and detail what would be needed to pique the interest of a developer. But after hearing from Dave Hengel, executive director of Greater Bemidji, and Aaron Chirpich, development director with the Headwaters Regional Development Commission, about neighboring properties that are either vacant (i.e. Pamida) or now listed for sale (a home with about 700 feet of Lake Irving shoreline is now for sale), the council opted to also include areas outside of the city-owned railroad corridor for planning purposes. The vote to expand the rail corridor’s geographical definition passed 5-1; Councilor Michael Meehlhause was absent and Councilor Roger Hellquist was opposed. Modeled after the 2002 work that similarly looked at the south shore before the city purchased that land, Hengel said existing land owners and those who rent city-owned properties would be welcome to attend and take part in the meetings. Further, he said, suggestions and ideas from the general public are not just welcome, but encouraged. The first open house will be no later than early October to invite comments. 

The goal, Hengel said, is to formulate a redevelopment plan consistent with input provided by the community on what the public would like to see in that area. “If the plan was to develop that (area) with a VistaNorth kind of concept, that would be huge for downtown,” said Councilor Ron Johnson. Johnson said previous studies have supported housing development as the establishment of additional residents would likely prompt further investment into downtown. Hengel and Albrecht said there are programs available that could potentially help cover costs associated with a Brownfield site, but they require a plan outlining goals for future reuse. That is what the project aims to accomplish. “You have to have an endpoint,” Albrecht said.

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