Sunday, November 27, 2005

Bemidji Leads

Bemidji, MN, the first city on the Mississippi, is an historically charming, beautiful and progressive city. It has grown by over 30% since 1980. In the past, the city was largely dependent on logging and tourism for employment but over the last 20 years it's become a regional hub in northern Minnesota for education, retail commerce and health care.

For the people of Bemidji this was a mixed blessing. Long time residents are glad that their children don't have to leave their "small town" and settle in the twin cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul in order to make a good living. But they were concerned that Bemidji was losing its small town charm and was being overrun by giant retail chains, parking lots and fast food franchises.

The invisible hand that guides the market was shaping their community in a way that a great many were not entirely comfortable with. A couple of dozen leaders in the community took to heart the message of philospher Joseph Campbell You either claim your destiny, or it will claim you. and decided to do something about it.

The result of that leadership, is Bemidji Leads. They didn't form a committee or create a task force, they invited the entire community to come together and talk about values, dreams and a vision for their lives together.

They convened over 40 town hall meetings and conducted meetups at coffee shops and open houses. Their message was simple - let's claim our future or it will claim us.

The people of Bemidji were reasonable and they demanded the impossible.

  • A healthy community successfully balancing regional center amenities and small town beauty and character;
  • A vibrant economic center recognized for its innovation, creativity and knowledge;
  • A social, cultural, recreational and educational magnet;
  • An embracing, culturally diverse community;
  • A people committed to shared prosperity and long-term community stewardship; and
  • The star of the north, a national model of community success.

They set some wild and crazy goals. One is planting 10,000 trees. A couple of rotary clubs and other groups latched on to that one and planted 30,000 in about a year. They set some seemingly impossible goals but the Bemidji model is spreading. The White Earth Indian Reservation, the city of Park Rapids and Mahnomen County all have taken notice. The Headwaters Regional Development Commission is going to try to make Bemidji a model for the state.

Some people see things as they are and ask why, the people of Bemidji see things as they might be and ask "Why not?"

Think globally, act locally - a wave to Minnesota Public Radio, to the MN Headwaters Regional Development Commission, and to the people of Bemidji.

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