Bemidji: A Town After my Heart

I realize that New Ulm is the urbanist’s dream and I truly do enjoy New Ulm (Herman the German – great!). However, Bemidji is giving New Ulm a run for its money. I adore Bemidji. Work travel used to take me there once or twice a year and now vacations do. Take note, urbanists! Over the last few years Bemidji has made some simple, but effective improvements to their downtown that have improved the walking and biking experience.

Bemidji is a fairly compact city, centered on Lake Bemidji. Minnesota Highway 197 is the main drag (more than half the population live within 300 meters of 197) that poses the biggest hurdle for a walkable, bikeable city and separates the downtown and neighborhood grids from its biggest natural asset. According to 2015 American Community Survey data, about 15,000 people live in Bemidji. It is a fairly poor city – 22 percent of its residents live in poverty and the median household income is $35,610. It is 81 percent White, and American Indians make up 11 percent of the population. Bemidji is close to Cass Lake, Leech Lake, and Red Lake Tribal Nations and Native people have a strong presence.

It’s also worth noting that 60 percent of workers work in Bemidji, rather than surrounding towns or other regions and 69 percent of workers have commutes of less than 10 miles. Eleven percent of households have no vehicles and 41 percent have one. This surprised me because I tend to think of people living in Greater Minnesota as having very long drives from housing outside the city and having to travel long distances to access retail, health care, and other amenities. But, at least in Bemidji, it seems most people live and work in this compact town and many probably benefit from greater transportation options because they do not have access to a car.

How Bemidji is Rockin’ the House

Like many older small towns, Bemidji has a core downtown with a grid that lends itself to walking and biking. Even before recent changes, it was easy to walk with sidewalks on most streets and many destinations. When I was visiting this August I paid attention to the types of businesses downtown. Some small towns have the existing grid, but lack destinations and businesses due to economic stagnation and the draw of big box stores on the outskirts. Bemidji has a business district that includes businesses that tourists want (like souvenir shops and cafes), but also businesses that I would use as a resident – drug stores, clothing shops, book stores, and law offices. It has the Harmony Co-op grocery store, Shifting Gears (a community bicycle non-profit) and Northern Cycle. It has a brewery and, my favorites, several restaurants with vegetarian food. It is rare that a vegetarian can find anything to eat besides a grilled cheese outside of the Twin Cities! Bemidji has several options including Wild Hare and Brigid’s Cross Pub (an Irish pub is not the first place I think of for vegan food, but their Shepherd’s Pie is great).

In the last few years they have been working to improve the walking and biking landscape. In 2016, the Headwater’s Regional Development Corporation completed their Health Impact Assessment of the MN-197 Northern Corridor with specific steps that are underway to increase active transportation along the corridor. Bemidji Avenue has been the focus as a bike/walk alternative to MN-197. I visited before and after some of the changes. They have been small, but have a great impact, at least from this visitor’s perspective.

Bemidji Avenue now has public art and benches at most corners. Benches! So simple, but they make it feel inviting and every time I visit I have used them. The art is great place-making and creates an environment that feels welcoming. I enjoy being in the space. Along with the public art, many businesses have painted murals which also increases the sense of space.

Public art and a bench

Public art

Bike racks! Nearly every corner has bike racks. Often artistic racks are not very functional, but their racks are nice to look at and to lock a bike to. Many are “northern” themed which also increases the sense of space and identity as a regional center and gateway to the north.

An artistic and useful bike rack

Along with the bike racks they have a small Nice Ride program. I hope it survives. When I visited in 2014, there were about six stations and now there are two. Unlike the Twin Cities bike sharing program, there are not check-out kiosks. Rather, riders checked out bikes from hotel front desks, the University of Minnesota Bemidji’s student center, the Harmony Co-op, and Lake Bemidji State Park. Now, they only have stations at the co-op and the state park. Bikes come with a helmet and a lock, as there are not kiosks. I rented one in 2014 and, although it was April and snowing heavily, I enjoyed biking in Bemidji. While there are no bike lanes or bike infrastructure, the downtown was set up in a way that made biking easy and comfortable – slow traffic, angled parking, wide shoulders on the major road out of town to my hotel.

Nice Ride rentals at Harmony Co-op

Finally, they have recently completed improvements to Paul Bunyon Park, which is the closest access to Lake Bemidji from downtown and a central point for tourists who want a picture with Paul and Babe. Unfortunately, the park is separated from downtown by MN-197, which is a five-lane highway. Before, the park was the statues and mainly a parking lot. Now, there is native landscaping along the lake, a bike and walking path that extends to hotels south of the lake and up to Bemidji State University, a great playground, and signalized crosswalks at MN-197 and 3rd Street Northwest.

Native plantings at Paul Bunyon Park

Paul and Babe

How Bemidji Could Step It Up

I was disappointed by this sentence on page 48 the Headwaters report: “Although a bike boulevard or a road diet along MN-197 would help eliminate the physical barrier and could provide a more walkable and bikable community, these recommendations would decrease the functionality of the road and are not feasible when considering the traffic volume along this corridor, the projected population growth and the retail sales trends.” Decrease functionality? For whom? Cars. According to the report, the current traffic on MN-197 varies from 12,000 to 19,000 cars per day, so clearly this is within a good range for a road diet. They reason for not decreasing lanes or otherwise calming traffic are projections of traffic of 20,000 to 38,000 cars per day in 2030. While I hope the optimism regarding population and business growth occur, it seems that there are ways to decrease the need for car trips, particularly in a city where so many people have commutes less than 10 miles.

On my most recent visit, I crossed MN-197 to Paul Bunyon Park with four children aged eight and younger. It was stressful and did not encourage regular crossing between the park and downtown.

Trying to cross MN-197. Yuck.

Near Bemidji State University, MN-197 turns west. The northern edge of town is the land of big box retail, chain restaurants, and hotels. When I traveled for business, I was always put up at a hotel along this stretch. Crossing MN-197 on a bicycle or on foot was scary and walking across vast, desolate parking lots was never pleasant, especially in February. Although central downtown is great from a bike/walk perspective, the northern end needs attention. It is a large center of employment and tourists (given the number of hotels). Making this stretch safer and tying it more concretely to the rest of downtown would bring it all together. I was the intrepid biker on my Nice Ride in the snow, but the entire northern part tells one to drive even though it is only a mile or so to the core downtown.

MN-197 remains a chasm between those businesses and residents to north of it and the lake to the west. It needs to be improved to really remove New Ulm from its crowned position.

Ugh, really?

Another chasm that is not related to streets, but is related to access to the city, employment, and regional growth in racism. Eleven percent of the population is American Indian and employment and poverty measures are much worse for these people. I have personally been denied seating at a restaurant when with Native co-workers. Statues like the one pictured at Morell’s Chippewa Trading Post send a clear message about who is welcome in these spaces. The relationship between the city, county, and state government and tribal nations is long and complex, but clearly more work needs to be done.

See You Next Summer, Bemidji

I will be back next summer for pancakes at the Minnesota Nice Café, shepherd’s pie at at Brigid’s, the Beltrami County Fair, and to play at Paul Bunyon Park. I hope that when I return some of the other things in the Headwaters plan are in place. Automated bike counters to provide more concrete data for bike planning, bike boulevards, and improved pedestrian crossings on MN-197 are still planned, but not implemented. Be bold, Bemidji! Go beyond paint. Not just for me, the annual visitor, but for all the people who need to get around without a car and those who might walk or bike more if they could.

Cool mural with a northern theme

Dana DeMaster

About Dana DeMaster

Dana DeMaster, MPP, is a program evaluator and researcher for human services programs who lives and bikes in Saint Paul. When she’s not analyzing data, she can be found rabble-rousing for neighborhood bike improvements in Saint Paul, playing Legos with her two children, or sewing practical things. You can find some of her other writing on the Grease Rag and Wrench blog.

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