Dave Hengel, Executive Director of Greater Bemidji
Thirty-five years ago I moved to Bemidji. Fresh out of college, I left my home in St. Cloud and headed north for my first job at the Headwaters Regional Development Commission. I literally knew no one here and frankly knew little about the community. I was just happy to have a job. Back then, the world was much bigger, and St. Cloud was the only town I knew. As a family, we didn’t travel much so all I knew and loved was in central Minnesota. Truth be told, my fullintention was to gain some quick experience and return to the friendly confines of my hometown.
Bemidji had a different plan for me. I fell in love with this community the day I arrived. I quickly learned what we all know - this place is special. This community welcomed me. I was embraced by great friends and a strong faith community. I met my wife here. You helped raise my children, educating and supporting them. This community provided me both a rewardin career and a very happy life.
I owe a deep debt of gratitude to our Bemidji community – truly to each of you. This isn’t just my story. It is the pervasive opinion of the leaders at Greater Bemidji. Our gratitude serves as the motivation for us to give back to the community that has given so much to us. It’s the driving force for our work to build a strong foundation for future prosperity and growth. It is why we work hard, challenge the community, dream big and pursue ideas and projects that some feel aren’t possible – projects like the proposed wellness center in the rail corridor.
As a community, we have wanted a wellness center for many years. By my last count, plans to build a wellness center have been launched and stopped seven different times here. For several reasons, it’s been a difficult nut to crack.
Back in 2021, Greater Bemidji and Sanford Health agreed to give it another try. Sanford agreed to donate $10 million, while Greater Bemidji has worked to raise another $15 million. The current plan is even more appealing than in the past because the proposal includes locating in the city-owned rail corridor on the south edge of downtown. The prospects are exciting. Not only would we build a community wellness center, but we would also clean up a polluted piece of property, energize our downtown and spur $90 million in new, private, taxable development. Even more, Sanford agreed to lease-purchase and operate the facility – a huge plus for the community.
I recall the first time I shared the current vision with the Bemidji City Council. I mentioned that projects of this size always encounter challenges, issues, and obstacles. By now, you have likely heard the proposed wellness center project has run straight on into our first substantial obstacle.
This week, Sanford announced that they will no longer be able to own and operate the facility. Since we began the current project just two years ago, much has changed. The price of construction is substantially higher than previously planned. In addition, the cost of capital has grown with increased interest rates. Overall, the cost of the proposal today is completely different than in the past.
Let me be clear though – Sanford’s recent announcement does not mean the project is dead. Quite the contrary. As Henry Ford said, “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.” All projects face hurdles, especially large ones like we are proposing. Great projects find a way to overcome them, and that is exactly what we are planning to do.
Greater Bemidji has agreed to take the baton and continue to run with the vision. We won’t be starting over. A lot of great work has already been done. We have learned that the rail corridor is a good site for the wellness center. We identified costs around environmental cleanup and infrastructure. We listened to the community on what they would love to see in a wellness center. Finally, we have already raised $11.2 million in addition to Sanford’s $10 million commitment. Collectively, we are approaching $25 million in funds raised. That’s amazing.
Over the next six months, Greater Bemidji will be working to right-size the project – identifying a concept that meets as many of our community needs as possible while ensuring the facility is sustainable long term. We will reach out to additional partners, and keep the city, partners and donors fully informed on our progress. All the while we will work to ensure the remainder of the private development within the corridor still occurs.
As we go forward, the only thing I can assure you is we will do our level best to identify the best plan to finally meet the community’s desire for a wellness center. We owe it to our partners, donors and each of you to do all we can. And rest assured we will.
I am very grateful to all our partners to date. The Bemidji City Council and staff have been very supportive. Kraus Anderson Development and the St. Paul Port Authority have worked hard to move this forward. To those who have already donated as part of the pacesetter fundraising, THANK YOU. Finally, despite the disappointing recent announcement, we as a community can’t lose sight of Sanford Health’s gift of $10 million – perhaps the single largest donation in Bemidji’s history.
Greater Bemidji has decided to commit our staff time, energy and resources to be the keeper of the vision because we truly see this as a transformative project. Rarely in my career has a project come along that will change our community’s trajectory. I believe in my heart this will. When I first moved to Bemidji back in 1988, one thing that surprised me was the prevailing sentiment that some things are just “too good for Bemidji”. For some reason, Bemidjians feel that because of our historic economic distress there are things that we just don’t deserve. Let’s not let that feeling creep into our minds as we pursue the development of a wellness center.
Our youth and families deserve to have opportunities for indoor recreation and fitness, particularly during the winter months. As always, I’d love to hear from you especially when it comes to the proposed wellness center. Send me your ideas, and your concerns. Most of all, in the coming months when we share a plan to move forward, please step up to help. We will need all hands-on deck.
Thank you, Bemidji.