Dave Hengel, Executive Director of Greater Bemidji
January 2023

“Change is the law of life.  And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.” – President John Kennedy

It’s the season of change right now.

There is so much happening in Bemidji it’s easy to become focused solely on the present.  What are today’s issues and opportunities in the region?  How can we address them?  What action can we take now to make an immediate impact?  As we work day-in and day-out to build a successful region, our vision can become dangerously short term.

At the same time, some would challenge us to dwell on the past.  While I think understanding and learning from the past – both the good and the bad - is critical.   And no doubt the past shaped who we are as a community today.  Yet it’s so easy to get stuck there.

With the change to a new year, I’d like to focus everyone’s attention on the future.  What does 2023 and beyond have in store for our Bemidji community?

I was recently interviewed about my view of the future -  what I think the new year will bring for our community as well as some longer term predictions.  I thought I would share my responses.   Keep in mind, this is just my view looking through my own lens of the future.  There would no doubt be those who have far differing opinions.

What current trend concerns you most?  The trend I am most concerned about is not unique to Bemidji, nor is it new.  For years, I have watched the gap between the have and have-nots widen.  There is a growing number of families in our region enjoying a prosperous lifestyle, while another large percentage live paycheck to paycheck.  How one views our community is often dependent on which camp you are in.  We shouldn’t be surprised that this can cause differing community opinions and disagreements.  I am not aware of a magic pill to solve the issue, but we have to continue to do all we can to address it.

What local issue will have the biggest impact on the community’s development in the coming years?  There are many issues and challenges we face as a community – just like any other area.  The current local issue I have been thinking a lot about over the past six months is around planning and permitting in our community.  In recent months, Northern Township pulled out of the Greater Bemidji Joint Planning Board.  Bemidji Township had done the same several years ago.  What is left is the City of Bemidji and our surrounding townships will potentially go-it-alone on planning and permitting.  Even more, Northern Township is considering incorporating into a city as well.

By sharing this as a concern, I am not casting blame or suggesting these were good or bad decisions.  I understand each of the decisions made to date.  I share it because I believe this has the potential of having an enormous impact on our development patterns.  I go into 2023 with a lot of questions, the biggest of which remains “will we be able to navigate this change to ensure we are a development-friendly region without losing the beauty and character we love about our Bemidji area?”.  No matter what decisions are made, they will impact our region for many years.

What gives you the most optimism about the region’s economy?  In my job, I have an ongoing connection with our businesses in the region – small and large.  Most are feeling very confident about the coming year.  I’m not suggesting we won’t have (or aren’t currently in) an economic slowdown.  The positivity I am hearing from our leading companies in the region is very encouraging.

What give you pause?  One of the worst things for economic development is uncertainty, and we continue to have uncertainty in the economy.  Will there be a recession? What will happen to prices? Will we have the workforce to drive the additional economic growth?  Lots of questions remain.   For developers, uncertainty creates pause. 

Are Bemidji’s best days ahead or behind it?  No doubt ahead of us. Change can be hard for many, particularly those solely focused on the past or the present.  Yet growth only comes through change.  I believe Bemidji is becoming more welcoming and prosperous.  We are building a great community to live, work, raise and family and do business in.  The foundation for long term success is being laid thanks to the strong leadership of so many.

What will be the deciding factor?  I have shared this in the past and I’ll share it again.  I believe our greatest competitive advantage in Bemidji is not an asset like our airport, the University, or our natural environment.  Our greatest competitive advantage to other region’s is our culture of working together.

Will we maintain that spirit of partnership at a time when so many of our national leaders promote division and conflict?  I think so.

There will be two indicators. First, do we all share a common vision for the Bemidji area?   Are all our leaders and key organizations pointed toward the same target?  Secondly, do community stewards continue to emerge.   The Alliance for Regional Stewardship defines community stewards as special leaders committed to the long-term future of our community.  They are not driven by a single issue or organization. They have a 360-degree vision – recognizing the interplay of culture, economy, education, etc.  Stewards operate at the center of tough issues, not edges.  They are passionate and people of vision.

Bemidji has been blessed with outstanding steward leaders in the part (and the present).

What is one prediction you have for the next year?  In 2023 we will be breaking ground on the largest private-sector development in our region’s history with the redevelopment of the city’s former rail corridor site and construction of the Sanford Family Sports and Wellness facility.  The project will change the trajectory of growth and development of our entire region.

That’s my glimpse into the future.  I’d love to hear yours.  Share them with me at dhengel@greaterbemidji.com.

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