UPDATED: When is Menards opening?

As work has progressed northwest of town, attention has spiked recently at the site of the Bemidji Menards store, partly due to ongoing hiring efforts and the newly placed sign that announcing the business is “opening soon.”

So when is Menards opening?

I traded emails with a spokesman for the company this morning. And he said the business is planned to open in “spring 2011″ which could be, technically, any time after March 20, when spring officially begins.

He went on to write that a press release announcing the store opening will be released “soon.”

FRIDAY MORNING UPDATE: I received an e-mail from the city this morning saying the city has heard the business is planning for an April 4 or April 5 opening, confirming those reports below from blog commenters. Thanks to all!

Bemidji and transparency in government

I received an e-mail notice today with the agenda of a future city committee meeting.

This is not unusual.

Especially this year.

I do not know who to credit exactly for the change, but this year, particularly, seems to be fostering more transparency with Bemidji city government.

To be clear, I have worked with many cities and counties over my newspaper career. And Bemidji has never been what I would call difficult to cover. In fact, there is only one instance in the last 3.5 years I can remember John Chattin, city manager, giving me a “no comment” to a question and I fully expected that one.

But this year, especially, city staff and city councilors have been remarkably open.

I have always received meeting notices for the more “public” committees, like Parks and Recreation, The Sanford Center Advisory Board, etc., but now I am getting notices, too, about meetings of committees that I have not given a lot of thought to. And even if I don’t cover them, I appreciate knowing of their existence and agenda items.

I also appreciate receiving the minutes from those committee meetings, which are being included in the city manager’s weekly newsletter Friday afternoons. (Actually, I think the minutes were added late last year, but have been expanded to include more committees this year.) It is not physically possible to attend all committee meetings, so I appreciate being able to read about what transpired.

Particularly, I appreciate the administrator’s report from the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board. While I do try to cover most of the JPB and Joint Planning Commission meetings, sometimes it just is not possible. So having access to at least the latest topics is greatly appreciated.

There always is room for improvement, of course, but I think residents should know about the steps that have been taken.

Just my two cents for the day.

2 a.m. – leftover thoughts from last week’s meeting

There was a mini-debate in my e-mail inbox two weeks ago about whether it was noteworthy that one of the people protesting the 2 a.m. bar closing time did not live within the city limits.

Some said, yes, it was important to note that he was not a city resident because he was addressing a city issue. Others said it should not matter because he is part of the greater Bemidji community, which would be impacted by the effects of the later bar closing times.

Well, someone contacted me late last week following the joint meeting between the council and the county board to make a similar point. City Councilor Kevin Waldhausen, during that meeting, stressed that public input can be expressed in different ways, including online on blogs such as this and Facebook groups.

As this caller said, if it is important to note whether people addressing the council are city residents, should it not also be found out whether members of the Facebook group also are city residents?

Waldhausen said there are more than 600 members of the Facebook group that supported bringing Zorbaz to Bemidji.

How many are city residents?

I have no idea.

***

Also, I was contacted by several readers last week who wanted me to provide – either in print or otherwise – the website for the Facebook group supporting Zorbaz.

I was unable to find it.

I was never a member of the group, but I did occasionally look at the page to read the comments. The last I read, following the council’s 4-3 vote in December, the page was going to be deactivated. I am guessing that happened, since I can no longer find the page. But if I’m wrong, someone please paste the link in the comments section here so I can refer to it. Thanks.

***

Thirdly, I owe new Councilor Jim Thompson an apology (and a correction).

I wrote in this story (first first of two on the joint meeting) this:

“The City Council is split, but the tally is not officially on record. The council last month voted 4-3 to change the bar closing time, but there now are three new council members, who all spoke against a later bar closing time.”

Well, that’s not accurate.

The new councilors are Mayor Dave Larson and Councilors Rita Albrecht and Jim Thompson.

Larson is against the later bar-closing time.  He talked about how he had been considering the purpose of city and county government. “I believe it boils down to this: We are responsible for the safety, health and well-being of those people that we represent. … In view of that, I don’t find any compelling logic or rationale to allow me to be in favor of this (later bar closing).”

Albrecht spoke out against it, saying that if the city was supporting its Police Department, it would follow the recommendations from the police chief: “It doesn’t make sense to continue down this road.”

Thompson, however, did not state his position one way or another on the issue. Instead, he was the first (of many) who stressed the need for the city’s and county’s ordinances to have the same bar closing times. If the city stays with 2 a.m., he said, he hoped the county would go back to 2 a.m. as well. This would eliminate the potential for rushing from one bar at 1 a.m. to another  bar before a 2 a.m. last call.

I inaccurately stated his position on the matter.

Hasn’t been my best week

Two council stories in two days and two corrections. Not good stats for the reporter. My apologies to all.

First, I mistakenly labeled Steve Fogelson a city resident in this story. While he does own property as a business owner, he does not live in the city limits. I corrected it online and ran a correction today. The distinction is important because many supporters of the 2 a.m. bar closing time have been pointing out that the majority of those who have vocally opposed the later bar time are not city residents.

And then today I learned I completely misquoted Fire Chief Dave Hoefer in this story about paid-on-call fire positions. I put in the print issue that “Hoefer said that previously, the positions were mainly given to POC firefighters based on popularity.”

Um, yeah, that was City Manager John Chattin.

I changed that online, too.

My apologies.

The Pioneer website and news articles

I have just a little while before I am leaving work for the holidays, but this question came up again today. And it was of the more often-asked questions I get, so I thought I would answer it here.

How do you decide what stories get posted online?

As frequent readers of the Pioneer website know, we publish throughout the day several (maybe a dozen?) online stories from around the state and nation, many of which never appear in print in the Pioneer. We also send “news alerts” when such stories are added, which means that for those who have subscribed to the e-mail alerts, they get an e-mail message with the headline of the article and link to the story.

Since I do some of the story postings, I am occasionally asked how we decide what gets posted online. Many of the stories we post are not “local” in that there are not ties to the Bemidji area.

First off, any “breaking” local news is immediately posted online. These involve incidents such as a personal-injury accident, a house fire or another unfortunate situation. If there is something relatively “big” happening in the city, we know our readers expect (or hope) that we have some kind of information, such as when Bemidji High School was evacuated due to the fire two weeks ago or so.

Otherwise, I take a look at regional stories. Such as this story about a Park Rapids teacher. Park Rapids is not in our coverage area, really, but enough people have connections to that area and are familiar with that region that I will, occasionally, post those stories. (Plus, I’ll be honest, I think anytime a teacher brings a gun to school, that is probably going to be a well-read article.)

We also get some stories that are shared throughout our company, Forum Communications, on breaking news-like items, like accidents, fires or crime arrests and sentencings. Generally speaking, our online readers tend to read a lot of such stories, so I will, usually, post these as well.

Beyond that, frankly, readers are left to my whims. I am a former sports reporter so I would probably be more likely to post Vikings stories than, say, another reporter. I also am from the Twin Cities area, so when I read stories about this happening in my hometown, I probably tend to think readers will be more interested than perhaps they are. I have few connections to North Dakota. So I probable have a tendency to downplay how much readers would be interested in North Dakota news. But I’m learning.

So, to summarize, it’s really not a scientific process. Depending on who is updating the website each day, you could get a completely different mix of things to read. We just hope at least some of what we post is interesting to our readers.

Special meetings called

The Bemidji City Council will meet Friday afternoon in two special meetings.

First, the council will convene at 5 p.m. as itself to discuss (and, presumably, approve) an amendment to state grant agreements for bonding dollars used to construct the Bemidji Regional Event Center. Then, councilors will consider approving the naming rights contract with Sanford Health for the BREC, which is expected to become The Sanford Center.

Immediately following that meeting, the City Council will convene as the Bemidji Economic Development Authority to also consider the naming rights agreement.

Yes, they held the first step toward approving a 2 a.m. bar closing…

Maybe I have attended too many council meetings. Or maybe I just assumed (bad idea) that readers know what I know. Either way, apparently, I did not make it very prominent news in today’s Pioneer that the Bemidji City Council did, in fact, hold the first reading of an ordinance that would allow for a 2 a.m. bar closing time.

I did a preview on the council meeting for Sunday’s Pioneer, so regular readers (I thought) would be aware that the the item was on the agenda for yesterday’s meeting. And then I included a very brief note in a a very brief story in today’s Pioneer saying the first reading was held.

Why not do more?

Well, I could have. I could have included the one paragraph that the council did hold the first reading and then a whole bunch of repeated information that already has been reported before. But, really, the whole first reading took up all of maybe 2 minutes of the council meeting. In fact, it went by so quickly that I missed it, because someone had come into the meeting a few minutes late and asked me a question about the agenda packet. I actually had to re-watch the 2-minute portion of the council meeting when I returned to the office to make sure that the first reading was, in fact, held.

Not that that is unusual. Most (not all) first readings of ordinances are held without discussion. Sometimes there are ordinances that prompt discussion or debate about definitions or terms (i.e. ordinances that govern the allowance of keeping chickens and farm animals). But, generally, most debate does not occur until the second reading, during which the council holds the public hearing on the proposed ordinance.

So come Dec. 6, I expect more debate. From both the public and the council.

And, really, that is what Councilor Kevin Waldhausen has been seeking from the beginning of this most recent 2 a.m. discussion. Whether you agree with him or not, Kevin all along has said he wants to see the ordinance process through to give the public a chance to voice its opinions.

Sure, the public could have before voiced its thoughts in letters, e-mails and phone calls during the previous work sessions that discussed the 2 a.m. bar closing time. But never before (that I am aware of) has the ordinance process on the proposed change been held. Never before was a formal public hearing held.

And that is slated for Dec. 6.

- Bethany

Plendl Environmental (curbside recycling) update

One of the more fun city stories I have written in recent years was the effort by then-Bemidji State University student Trevor Plendl to start his own curbside recycling business, Plendl Environmental L.L.C.

I wrote a story on the business in July 2009, when he then had 16 customers. Today, he has more than 400.

My interest was again piqued this afternoon when I saw the company listed on the Bemidji City Council’s consent agenda for Monday, when the council will likely approve an agreement that will allow Plendl Recycling to pick up recyclables in the city limits.

City Manager John Chattin writes, “Council action will be a move in the direction of legitimizing the entire realm of existing operation or activities.”

Plendl Recycling filled a void left in 2007, when the city of Bemidji opted to discontinue its curbside recycling program.

- Bethany

More follow-up on 2 a.m. bar closing time

First off, this is, mostly, related to a the editorial in today’s Pioneer. So if you haven’t read it, you might want to do so before you read any further. Just a thought.

Bemidji City Councilor Kevin Waldhausen, who is currently championing the current effort to have the city consider extending bar closing times from 1 to 2 a.m., called me this morning and pointed out that the editorial misstates previous council action on the 2 a.m. time.

The editorial states, “After voting twice against allowing Bemidji bars to stay open until 2 a.m. …”

Kevin questioned this morning whether this was accurate.

Yes, the council this year has twice before considered action on the 2 a.m. closing time, but it, technically, had only voted once on the issue (before Monday). The council voted 4-2 in February to no support a request from Zorbaz owner Tom Hanson to push back the bar closing time from 1 to 2 a.m. In April, the council was asked by developer Drew Olson to reconsider the February motion, but the council chose not to do so. To be clear, the council chose not to do so by overall consensus – no formal vote was taken during that April meeting.

That said, after Kevin and I finished our phone call, I remembered that there may have been one other vote taken on the issue by the council.  In 2003, after the 2 a.m. extended hours were made a possibility, the council considered – and rejected – the possibility of extending liquor sales from 1 to 2 a.m. Was that a formal vote, though, or just discussion? According to the minutes of the July 7, 2003, meeting, the council “expressed a lack of support for the 2:00 a.m. bar closing based on the increased cost to the city for law enforcement.”

So to sum up, to the best of my knowledge, Kevin is correct and two formal votes have not been taken to reject the 2 a.m. bar closing time.

- Bethany

BREC and property taxes

Hopefully, this isn’t “old news” – it took me a little while to find the time to write this up.

Councilor Barb Meuers said last week, during the council’s budget work session, that some councilors have repeatedly stated that the Bemidji Regional Event Center’s operations would not raise property taxes.

Her statements addressed the 2011 city budget , which include a $300,000 operating subsidy for the BREC.

“This is why I’ve been voting no all along,” she said.

City Manager John Chattin and Mayor Richard Lehmann disagreed with Meuers, saying that they, all along, have said that the facility would lose money.

So, since then, I’ve done a little research – and this is what I found: (Note: All emphasis added by me, just today.)

- June 10, 2008, Bemidji Pioneer, “South Shore Redevelopment: Project scrapes by,” written by me. (This article detailed the 4-3 vote to approve the funding plan for the south shore redevelopment.)

‘While (City Manager John) Chattin said city staff have developed a plan that would be utilized without raising property taxes, Meuers said she could not put the residents’ property taxes on the line.”

-  The June 9, 2009, minutes – the meeting from which the above article was written (just in case someone wants a source other than my reporting…):

“Chattin reviewed possible sources to cover operating deficits without raising property taxes which include: 1) sale of naming rights ($75,000 to $150,000 annually); 2) charge for parking during events; 3) increase ticket surcharges; 4) dedicate savings from the creation of an airport authority to the center; 5) dedicate a portion of the $150,000 savings from reorganization of the wastewater treatment facility; 6) reassess the need to continue city arena operations (Chattin noted that the City arena loses over $100,00 annually plus ongoing capital needs); 7) develop the old fairgrounds site, with the county and split lease revenues; 8) find additional opportunities for advertising revenues, i.e., scoreboard, sponsorships, etc.; 9) lease any unused office space; 10) increase the current hospitality tax to cover promotional costs included in the budget; and 11) pursue corporate pledges.”

- Jan. 11, 2008 Bemidji Pioneer, “Financial strategies planned to not affect taxpayers,” again, written by me:

“The event center project team, which consists of representatives from city staff, Headwaters Regional Development Commission and the design team, has developed funding strategies for the events center that do not rely on taxpayer dollars.”

- From the city’s Frequently Asked Questions about the BREC, which were released in September 2008.

First set of FAQs: Question: “I’m told the BREC will operated at a deficit. how will the city cover that cost?

Convention, Sports, and Leisure, our consultants, suggest that an operating loss is inevitable for this facility. However, there are many possible revenue streams identified by CSL that could mitigate those losses. We should also consider the economic impact to our region generated by this facility and what that is worth. The city operates many facilities, none of which make a profit (except for our liquor stores). Parks, arenas, streets, and other facilities all have a cost associated with them. So will the BREC. It will be the city’s goal to operate the facility as efficiently as possible and minimize any loss. City staff have also identified other revenue sources and expenditure reductions that could help cover operational deficits. The goal is to prevent, or minimize, any increase in property taxes.

Second set of FAQs:

Question: “How will the city pay for … deficits?

“Possible sources to cover operational deficits may include, but are not limited to, the following:

“Airport contribution – As the airport moves towards a stand alone taxing authority, the city could reallocate its $180,000 annual contribution to BREC operations.

“Arena – The future of the City Arena should be examined. The Arena has annual operating deficits of $90,000, plus on-going capital requirements.

“Sell/Lease old fairgrounds property – Jointly develop site with Beltrami County and split the sale or lease revenue.

“Sale of Naming Rights/Parking Fees/Ticket Surcharge/Budget Mandates – These opportunities are described in detail in the CSL report and could generate from $80,000 to $303,000 annually.

“Property Taxes – Should all other funding sources fail to cover operational deficits, the last resort, and least favorable remedy, remains property taxes. The extent of tax increases, if any, would depend on how revenue sources and operational projections materialize”

OK, back to present time.

I have a few thoughts.

The oft-referenced CSL study details anticipated deficits for the BREC. But one should note that the operational assistance needed is quite different when one considers the early start-up years versus later years (i.e. after year five), when the BREC is stabilized.

The CSL study, done in April 2008, shows an expected base stabilized deficit of $436,000.

As Councilor Ron Johnson noted lasted Monday, the city now is anticipating needing only about $300,000 for assistance in 2011, which is in line with the best-case scenario CSL presented.

Projections at this point are “conservative at best,” Johnson said, noting that  budget figures do not include any revenue brought in from naming rights (which are still planned to be sold); include non-sold-out hockey games, (when many already have sold out); and there is a community fund available, totaling about $70,000, to assist with deficits.

Further, Johnson argued at the BREC would generate additional development, such as the two planned hotels in the area, that would help relieve any tax burden.