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Published June 01, 2012, 12:00 AM

BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT: A new vision for Bemidji

Strategy expected to help the region grow and prosper

By: Alan Van Ormer, Prairie Business Magazine

BEMIDJI, Minn. — As many as 50 private businesses, key regional organizations, and city and county leaders are developing a vision that is already transforming Bemidji, a north central Minnesota community.

The Joint Economic Development Commission is now Greater Bemidji. The community has embarked on a new strategic direction with focus areas in supporting entrepreneurship and innovation, growing, attracting and retaining talent, marketing the Bemidji region as a great place for business, growing and accessing an economic development toolbox and hiring Dave Hengel as its new executive director.

“Changing the name to Greater Bemidji speaks better to who we are. We took a step back and focused on areas with the biggest impact on growing our region,” Hengel says. “It is symbolic and is a much better indicator of how we operate and what we do.”

Bob Fitzgerald, director of operations for Kraus-Anderson Construction Co., says the new strategy will help with growth and will provide opportunities for investors and businesses in the region. “These are exciting times. From our company’s perspective, the Greater Bemidji region is poised for very significant growth,” he says. “This initiative will help manage the growth, drive developments and promote prosperity.”

Greater Bemidji will focus on the area within a 30- to 40-mile radius of Bemidji. Bemidji is considered a regional center in northern Minnesota with a trade area that encompasses a 50-mile radius and includes more than 108,000 people.

“We need to be strategic,” says Jim Bensen, chair of Bemidji Leads, an organization devoted to building the community’s future. “What we are doing is creating a culture of openness, ideas and resources.”

Bensen notes that the next big economic step is to come up with ideas to lure people to the region. “Location isn’t the key here but quality of place is,” he says. “We believe Bemidji is that.”

For example, these ideas could be centered on forestry affairs and design and applied engineering, two trades that are important in driving Bemidji’s economy.

Another key ingredient is the search for talent and in Bemidji’s case that talent is right at home. “We have to be a leader in growing and attracting talent from an economic development framework,” Hengel says.

The higher education systems in the Bemidji region graduate about 1,000 students.

“Our job is to deliver a better trained workforce with relevant training with a proper skill set to drive an economy that is changing and to service our economy,” says Dick Hanson, president of Bemidji State University. “We are committed to creating that talent, but not restricted to where they go.”

The new initiatives are prompting the university system to write a different script, Hanson says. “Our agenda now deals with workforce and employment-oriented curriculum,” he adds. “There are challenges in retaining talent. Our goal is to recruit, retain and gradually finish that talent.”

Another way to develop talent comes from an initiative called Students First in Bemidji. Under the plan, every student develops a success plan by the ninth grade and is paired with adult coaches. The pilot project is operating with 100 students and there are 98 coaches in business, community and the arts.

The next step for Greater Bemidji is to implement action teams and develop action plans. “We’re not forgetting about the traditional building blocks,” Fitzgerald says. “These are four more building blocks to go with our traditional tools.” PB