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Bemidji kicks off Sesquicentennial week

BEMIDJI, Minn. -- While eating pancakes early Monday morning at the Bemidji Senior Center, Gov. Tim Pawlenty asked Jody Tolbert what she thought was great about Minnesota.

"You have to make a distinction between people always talking about there's things to do here, but I really try to focus on how we live here," the governor said she told him.

The Bemidji area has a great number of things to do -- access to the outdoors and enjoying lakes, hunting, fishing, hiking, biking trails -- which are also available through most of Minnesota, Pawlenty said.

And Tolbert told the governor about the library system, the community theater, the health care delivery system and the university.

"She also talked about how we live, that she feels safe, that she feels a very receptive community where people know each other, care for each other, and that neighbors and others get involved in a way that is supportive and encouraging each other," Pawlenty said.

That tells the fabric of the Bemidji community, Pawlenty said, as he kicked off Minnesota Sesquicentennial events statewide with Bemidji as the first Capital for a Day.

"This is a very exciting community," he said, reminding those gathered at Bemidji City Hall that earlier this spring he stood in the same room to conduct a mock bill signing of the state bonding bill that includes $20 million for the Bemidji Regional Events Center.

"It's a very forward-looking vision for the city," he said. "You think what is this place going to look like 20, 30 years from now, and we need a city and a region that is forward-looking, that has the kind of amenities and infrastructure in place where people are going to want to come and stay and enjoy and that build an economy, make use of the educational system."

He credited the group of local stewards, "Bemidji Leads!" headed by former Bemidji State President James Bensen, as being a catalyst for change, creating "a lot of forward-looking momentum."

The group has been "articulating and identifying those benchmarks and vision points that the city wants to advance toward as a forward-looking vision."

He also credited BSU's Center for Research and Innovation, an off-campus service that is a "collaboration between business and the needs of the local community."

The Paul Bunyan Trail, tourism and the natural resources also mean a great deal for the area, Pawlenty noted, also saying that Bemidji was selected as a capital to represent the coniferous biome of the state, which has five of them.

"This is a great Minnesota city, part of a great Minnesota community fabric, of our history and our tradition," he said, adding that it was proper to celebrate the state's 150th anniversary by showcasing Bemidji.

The Sesquicentennial is a good time to celebrate the past and prepare for the future, he said. All five North American biomes -- coniferous forest, tallgrass aspen parklands, deciduous forest, prairie grasslands and driftless area -- converge in Minnesota.

Minnesota became the 32nd state on May 11, 1858, he said, "and Minnesota's history in terms of our native peoples was even before official statehood, and we should remember and reflect upon that chapter in this area's history as well."

Minnesota's Statehood Expo is this weekend in the St. Paul, and Pawlenty noted its theme of "Honoring those who serve" as fitting well the two men elected by Bemidjians to serve Monday as honorary governor and lieutenant governor.

He introduced Brian Ophus as governor and Robert Fraik as lieutenant governor. Both are members of the Minnesota Army National Guard and have served tours of duty in both Bosnia and Iraq.

A state filled with really great people is a measure of Minnesota's success, he said. "We see measurements of charity and measurements of generosity and measurements of volunteerism and measurements of how involved and engaged our citizenry is. It's really almost off the chart in all of those categories."

Ophus and Fraik "are part of this great tradition of raising their hand and saying, 'My country needs me on issues that call, I'll go,'" Pawlenty said, "even though it's not always convenient or easy, these are really great and wonderful people."

Pawlenty also unveiled a new U.S. Postal Service 42-cent stamp that will commemorate Minnesota's statehood Sesquicentennial. The stamp, taken from a photo by Park Rapids photographer Richard Hamilton Smith, depicts an aerial sunset shot of the Upper Mississippi River Valley near Winona.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie asked Bemidjians to attend next weekend's Statehood Expo, and to become involved in civic affairs.

With the stamp depicting Winona as one of Minnesota's last cities on the Mississippi River and Bemidji as the first city on the Mississippi, it's a good indicator to remember that "we are all connected together," said Ritchie, a Democrat.

The charge to the Sesquicentennial Commission "was to think about one Minnesota -- our Minnesota," he said.

The events can be used to look back "as a way to remind ourselves of the great gifts, some of the physical gifts ... and some of the gifts that are gifts of ideas," Ritchie said. "Perhaps the gifts of our community are those that we can be the most grateful for and remember."

It also raises the issue of responsibility, he said, of how to care for those gifts, how to care for the river or the city infrastructure, and "what are we doing to invest so that future generations have the same opportunities we have."

Bemidji's ongoing Bemidji Avenue project to replace sewer and water lines "may not be the sexiest subject in the world," Ritchie said, "but the fact that 100 years ago people thought about how to protect the lake and the river and invested for times they would never see.

"You now are taking your responsibility in maintaining those but also investing for the future," he added, "that looking back with appreciation for our gifts, that taking good care of those gifts and being proper stewards of what we have been blessed with and thinking about what we are leaving for those times that we will never see. That's what makes Minnesota such a great place."

State Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Dan McElroy also credited "Bemidji Leads!" with having vision for the community, in "breaking down silos."

Bemidji's success is in getting lots of people to work together, he said. The city leadership model is an example of what the state wants to duplicate throughout Minnesota -- FIRST, or Framework for Integrated Regional Strategies.

"Minnesota is often known as the land of 10,000 lakes, but it's also been the land of 10,000 pilot projects or 10,000 strategic plans," McElroy said. "The challenge is that those strategic plans are like strong yarn -- they have guided higher education, K-12 education, workforce development, economic development, housing, and lots of other things."

But McElroy called most of those plans as vertical, contained within their own systems. "Our customers' needs are often horizontal; they have needs across a variety of things to achieve prosperity and a high quality of life."

Bemidji has been a great leader "in finding ways to weave together customer needs and system capabilities into a fabric of a prosperity strategy," he said.

He also highlighted Bemidji's joint planning effort with Bemidji and Northern townships through an orderly annexation agreement and a Joint Powers Board for zoning issues.

"Congratulations to Bemidji on its regional leadership," McElroy said. "Bemidji also gets it. The welfare of the people doesn't end at the city limits. You are unique in having this city and township collaboration in planning."

McElroy in closing said that it's not just "Bemidji Leads!" but also that "Bemidji Rocks!"