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Lines drawn on proposed Bemidji events center

BEMIDJI - A forum Friday evening designed to lay down misconceptions about the Bemidji Regional Events Center apparently didn't sway any minds.

Designed to allow citizens to ask questions of those officials most involved in the events center planning, the forum devolved several times into a free-for-all, with moderator Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, trying to reclaim order.

Scheduled to last two hours, the forum exceeded 2½ hours, as many people chose to make anti-events center statements rather than ask questions. And Olson, who supports the events center, was accused of lengthy answers that cut into the time for citizen questions.

A chasm still runs deep involving Bemidji State University's role in the project, with many citizens questioning why the city should subsidize BSU hockey. BSU's NCAA Division I hockey program would be the anchor tenant in the events center.

Brian Donovan, a BSU English professor, however questioned whether the university should even support Division I hockey, raising an incident several years ago involving BSU hockey players in an alleged rape at a party. Charges were later dismissed.

Olson tried to stop Donovan, claiming the issue has nothing to do with construction of the events center, but several in the audience urged Donovan on. The Bemidji Democrat said that if order wasn't restored, she'd ask people to leave. "I really don't want this to become a public forum for something that isn't related to the events center."

But Donovan said it was related, and asked if the local Sexual Assault Program had been consulted "as to the safety of having Division I hockey continue at BSU. Should we actively seek the preservation of this program?"

No one on the panel, which included BSU Finance and Administration Vice President Bill Maki, answered his question, but Olson returned that the forum was to "bring some clarification to some very specific things related to this project."

Whether to continue the hockey program or not is not the topic of the forum, she said. "We're trying to help people get some clarity around issues ... not to provide a forum. Sir, that's really not helpful."

A man in the audience spoke loudly that Olson was monopolizing the time and that she should just let the people ask their questions. "You can talk at home," he said.

Maki, however, was the brunt of a series of questions from Ted Soular, a member of the panel representing the group of citizens that presented the Bemidji City Council with a petition to put the events center again to a referendum vote, which the council dismissed.

Upon Soular's questioning, Maki said BSU remains "firmly committed" to being a partner with the city in construction of the events center, and that a memo of understanding will have BSU paying the city $150,000 a year for 20 years, based on a flexible schedule that starts with $7,500 a game.

The future of BSU's NCAA Division I hockey program would also be seriously in doubt if the events center were not built. And, he said, a Division I-capable hockey arena alone cannot be built on the former Bemidji High School property because there isn't enough space.

In February 2007, BSU President Jon Quistgaard laid down goals that must be accomplished if the school were to continue with NCAA Division I hockey, one of them being in Bemidji's events center. Another, Maki said, was the BSU Foundation raising $2.5 million over five years to support the hockey program.

"That goal has been met," Maki said. Half of that comes from $60,000 commitments each for 25 suites in the new events center arena.

"Should we not build the events center, it is most likely Bemidji State hockey could not continue?" Soular asked Maki. "Without a new facility, it would seriously jeopardize the future of the Bemidji State hockey program," Maki said.

Negotiations are continuing "in good faith" for a formal lease, Maki said, which Quistgaard intends to sign.

Later on, when a questioner said the city should not be subsidizing BSU hockey, Olson offered that it's actually the other way around. The city is getting $20 million toward events center construction because of the partnership between BSU and the city, she said, plus the Legislature gave permission to extend the city's sales tax for construction.

With 80 percent of the city sales tax generated from sales by people living outside the city, that means that city residents will pay only about $8 million through sales taxes toward some $62 million for events center construction.

City Finance Director Ron Eischens said that if the city were to stop the events center project by year's end, in a worst-case scenario, the city would have to pay off some $15.4 million in already incurred costs -- amounting to a 40 percent increase in the city's portion of property taxes.

Moving ahead with the project, which is at $90.7 million that includes acquisition of the south shore property, would have a worst case of $15.7 million to put on property taxes, to a best case of no costs to the taxpayer.

Operation and maintenance, however, will be an ongoing cost, aided by BSU's $150,000 annual lease payment. Those costs estimate average $436,000 a year, but include an annual $200,000 set-aside for future capital needs. Councilor Onen Markeson said that expenditure is unusual -- no other city building has that -- and could be eliminated.

Rita Albrecht, city community development director, said actual events center construction is basically covered by the state bonds and the sales tax extension. The remaining costs for land and infrastructure would seek grants, tax-increment financing, city utility funds and a hotel partner for a convention center.

"I came here because I thought this forum was for the purpose of hearing what concerns the community had," said Shannon Murray. "It's not the concerns people raise but what happens after these concerns are raised. People in the community have been continually silenced and bullied and harassed for speaking out."

Murray said she wonders why "one of the poorest counties in the state wants to build such a large facility at such a huge cost which will be such a financial hardship on the community for the purpose of supporting a hockey team which may or may not be of value of all the people in this community."

Councilor Barb Meuers, who with Markeson sat on the panel, said those were her fears also.

"I believe that certain entities in this town have been pretty biased on how they report things and I don't think people have been heard," Meuers said. "I should have said a long time ago I want to stop, I want to figure out a business plan to move forward, to know the answers to all these financial questions before we move forward."

But maybe we're not all right but not all wrong, she added. "I was hoping for a win-win, but I'm not sure there's going to be a win-win. That's my fear. We're going to have a city divided and it's going to hurt us a lot. I don't know if this is going to move forward or not."

Both sides need to come together and figure it out, Meuers said.

The events center is needed for economic development and further Bemidji as a regional center, said Markeson, a strong supporter who isn't seeking re-election this fall.

"BSU hockey makes this financially feasible, both with the basic funding costs we get from the state and continuing ongoing operations," he said. "We couldn't have a facility of this size without an anchor tenant like BSU, and I think they're a valuable ally in this."

A reason for state bonding is to create jobs, Markeson said, "and by bringing forward the events center with state funding and the sales tax, we can bring a significant number of jobs upfront, with 200 construction jobs."

Most of those would come from the community, he said, plus the center will draw jobs and new businesses, expanding the city tax base.

Murray said she fears the officials are spending more time trying to convince people to accept the events center, rather than listen to concerns and make changes.