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Inside Bemidji’s Plan to Attract Teleworkers

Early in the pandemic, Bemidji offered to pay teleworkers to move there. Let’s take a trip up north to find out how it went!

Links

Attributions

Our theme song is Tanz den Dobberstein, and our interstitial song is Puck’s Blues. Both tracks used by permission of their creator, Erik Brandt. Find out more about his band, The Urban Hillbilly Quartet, on their website.

This episode was hosted and edited by Ian R Buck, and transcribed by Sherry Johnson. We’re always looking to feature new voices on the show, so if you have ideas for future episodes, drop us a line at podcast@streets.mn.

Many thanks to our guests on this episode: Dave Hengel, Rita Albrecht, Jordan Lutz, and especially the relocators Aaron Coburn, Val Kinnane & trailing spouse Scott.

Transcript

Ian: [00:00:02] Welcome to the Streets.mn Podcast, the show where we highlight how transportation and land use can make our communities better places. Coming to you from beautiful Seward, Minneapolis, Minnesota. I am your host, Ian R Buck. The pandemic changed a lot of things about how we relate to the spaces around us, in particular giving many people their first taste of working from home. About a year into the pandemic, I started hearing stories on national news about like, midsize cities like Tulsa, setting up programs to attract tech workers who wanted to move away from the expensive cities on the coasts. And right here in Minnesota, Bemidji was one of them, offering to pay remote workers to move there. Then the story went cold. Nobody was talking about it anymore. I started wondering how the program was going. Had anybody taken advantage of it? Were they enjoying their new home? And as a transportation activist, I wondered more broadly if the trend of moving people away from cities like New York would increase their carbon footprint? After all, working remotely can make it way easier to live car free, but not if you move out into the middle of the woods, far away from the amenities that you need day to day. So to answer all of these questions, in late July of 2023, I packed up my folding bike, hopped on a Jefferson Lines bus, and headed up to the land of Paul Bunyan. We’re going to hear conversations with a couple of remote workers who took advantage of the 218 Relocate program, as well as sustainability minded planners. But first, I want you to meet Dave Hengel, who’s the executive director of Greater Bemidji, the organization running 218 Relocate.

Dave: [00:01:43] Greater Bemidji is a nonprofit organization, a charitable nonprofit that leads the economic development work for the city of Bemidji and the surrounding area. So roughly a, you know, 15-30 mile radius of Bemidji. So whether it’s, you know, supporting small businesses as they, uh, as they grow, helping entrepreneurs get into business, uh, recruiting companies to town, recruiting workers to town like we’re talking about today, all those things are kind of part of what we do here. We’re a small group. Uh, we have two full time staff and three contracted staff, but, uh, really a small effort funded by a real nice private public partnership that includes the city of Bemidji and Beltrami County, but primarily about three quarters of our funding comes from companies in the area who are investing in the future growth of the community.

Ian: [00:02:33] Um, and 218 Relocate is one of your programs. Um, so let’s dig into that a little bit. You’ve got you’ve got numbers in front of you, I do. So, um, I mean, the, the, the first thing I think that a lot of people hear about this program is like, oh, we’re paying people to move to Bemidji, right? So let’s start there. Like, like, how much is that grant?

Dave: [00:02:54] So it’s changed. And so when we first started out, it was a $2,500 grant to move to Bemidji to help with traveling expenses or moving expenses. So it wasn’t like, here’s some cash, come on up and you may not show up or anything like that. Rather, people moved up here and they submitted their their moving expenses. And we we helped cover those. And and that has now transitioned, by the way, to, uh, there isn’t any cash contribution. Rather it’s just six months of free gigabit, uh, broadband, uh, free of charge in our area, plus access to you get a free membership at the chamber, free membership of our launchpad co-working space, as well as access to what we call the community concierge, which is somebody who, if you’re moving to our community, that you can it’s your go to person to get networked into the community, to answer questions about things like, you know, how do I get into the schools? How do I, uh, what doctor should I go to with those type of things? We have a person who does those things. So cool.

Ian: [00:03:57] We’ll hear more details from Dave throughout the episode, but really, you want to hear from the folks who moved to Bemidji? I visited Val Kinnane and her husband Scott at their home just outside of town. I was amazed that just a 20 minute bike ride from downtown was a home on a beautiful, wooded, rural plot of land on the banks of the Mississippi River. I asked Val how they had chosen Bemidji.

Val: [00:04:20] Yeah, it’s an interesting story. My husband, Scott and I had been planning on moving for years. Um, our kids were grown and pretty much on their own, so. And they were hesitant when they were younger. They didn’t want to move out of the area where they grew up. We were in the Twin Cities area. We were in a western suburb and, um, the time was just right. We wanted to move my job. Um, I worked for a consulting firm and it became 100% remote. Yeah, and I had.

Ian: [00:04:56] And that was like a pandemic thing?

Val: [00:04:56] It was a pandemic thing, and then there was the company that, um, I was working for. I’m still working for them. They’re based out of Georgia, and they have no desire to go back in the office. So, um, I’m pretty safe. My team is all over the US. Um, we I’m on video calls all day long. You know, there was there was no desire to go back into the office. And so, yeah, we thought it was time to finally really buckle down and find where we want to go. Scott was getting close to retirement. He wanted to retire. Um, we didn’t want to retire in the Twin Cities area, so we looked all over. I mean, we actually had, um, a search in the five state area. Um, we decided to stay in Minnesota.

Ian: [00:05:50] Did you have, like, a wall full of, like, red, you know, yarn, like connecting?

Val: [00:05:55] Nothing like that, you know, we were very specific about what we what we wanted, and it had to be around our hobbies. We love the outdoors, we love winter. And, um, I, I love being on the water. I’m a fisher. Um, Scott is more of a hunter, so we really wanted a place that had water and woods. And we found this gem up here on the Mississippi River. And I had actually seen an article in Twin Cities, um, Business magazine, and they were talking about the 218 Relocate. And I thought, you know what, let’s take a harder look at the Bemidji area. Why what’s what’s there? Is there still is there any houses that would, you know, fit our dream? What does that look like? And, um, so it was really prompted by that article that they had done and I probably had seen it before, but, um, just looking at with a new lens. Yeah. And we saw this property. It was in February. We couldn’t even get to the location because they were snowed in. It took us an additional week or two just to even travel up here and see the property.

Ian: [00:07:10] And that was February of this year?

Val: [00:07:12] It was February of 2022–last year.

Ian: [00:07:17] Okay.

Val: [00:07:18] And when we saw it, um, we just knew it was a fit. We had looked at a couple of houses up here and we just knew that this was it. Yeah. And so we tried to pull everything together, make our dream come true, make sure, you know, Scott had been remote way before the pandemic, so his job was already he was already working out of the house. It was just, you know, is mine going to stay that way? What are we going to do? What does it look like? Um, can we move that far away from family and friends? Um, you know, just the whole thing, and decided to put it in motion that it was time. We’re not getting any younger. Let’s move.

Ian: [00:08:00] Yeah. Had you been up here to the Bemidji area many times before?

Val: [00:08:05] Um, honestly, not a lot, but we’re the we’ve always been the type of traveler that we’re going to go see a place, and we’re typically not going to go back there, we’re going to go somewhere else. And so we, you know, we knew of the area, um, didn’t really know a lot of what Bemidji had to offer. But again, we were very specific. We wanted to be on water and we wanted woods.

Ian: [00:08:30] I mean, you referenced like obviously grandkids, big aspect of, you know, you want you want the family to still feel like a cohesive unit. Um, so how does it how has it been feeling so far living a 3.5 hour drive away?

Val: [00:08:44] Um, we don’t see them as much as we would like. You know, I’m not going to be able to make the, um. Hey, they play baseball after school type thing, but we have done. Quite a few day trips for a birthday party just to see people. Um, you know, and that’s a lot because it’s a eight hour driving day, right? Just to go back and see your family or friends for whatever the occasion is. Um, our youngest son is up here quite a bit. Just enjoy that company immensely. Um, and the I think the appeal for this particular place was really the house as well. Um, it’s a large house. Um, there’s five bedrooms. There you go. And so I had…a lot of people…

Ian: [00:09:31] Plenty of space for family hosting?

Val: [00:09:33] …at the same time, which we do. You know, there’s a constant influx of people that are visiting. They want to come up to the area, they want to be a tourist here, they want to see it. And so we just have that open door and.

Ian: [00:09:48] Sounds like that’s not just family. That’s like, you know, friends as well.

Val: [00:09:51] Exactly. Lots of lots of friends. You know, people that just want to come up and spend time. And sometimes we don’t even leave the farm, you know, to go into the city and see anything. We’re just kind of hanging out here. So it’s it’s kind of fun.

Ian: [00:10:06] Tell me a little bit more about the property. We were talking about it before we hit record, but like, um, you said 90 some acres.

Val: [00:10:13] Yeah, I think it’s 97 acres. Um, and it borders the Mississippi before it. The Mississippi goes into Bemidji. So coming out of Itasca, we’re between Itasca and Bemidji. And, um, there’s a good share of woods on the property. We have a lot of trees. We’re, you know, there’s a lot of work to do on it. Um, I have a huge garden. Um, we have a lot of deer here, so I’ve had to fence in the garden. Um, Scott put in an eight foot fence around it. Um, and, you know, it’s just.

Ian: [00:10:52] Are you trying to keep out basketball players?

Val: [00:10:54] Exactly. We’re trying to keep out everything. Everything. Um, you know, there’s just so much going on on this property, um, with, I think pretty much every day I can hear the lawnmower going, Scott is mowing the lawn. It’s a lot in the winter time. The driveway isn’t small at all. So just to keep a path out, even though we’re staying here most days, just trying to keep that open in case somebody’s coming over or what have you. But the property is beautiful. We have huge plans with it. We’re going to put in pollinator habitat where there used to be, um, where there was pasture. Mhm. Um, the family before us or the families before us had, you know, something that was in the pasture. So we’re going to regenerate that. Um, I’ve joined the Master Gardener program for the County of Beltrami, and I’m an intern this year. So we’re trying to figure out all the things that we need to do to make sure that we’re maintaining the land. Mhm. Um, the gardening has always been my passion. I have flower gardens all over. I have the big vegetable garden. Um, and just trying to figure out what we want to do. Scotts always wanted wildflowers so we’re going to put that dream in motion.

Ian: [00:12:14] I also got to meet up with Aaron Coburn at the co-working space. That’s one of the perks of 218 Relocate. I was delighted when he arrived for our interview by bicycle.

Aaron: [00:12:23] So I’m brand new to Bemidji. I’ve been here for about three weeks now, and this is the question that everyone seems to ask me. Why? Bemidji? Um, so I had been living in the Adirondack, the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, which is completely gorgeous. Um, the Winter Olympics were there back in the 1980, um, you know, lovely place. And so why Bemidji? Um, so my son has all these interests that have been taking him out to the upper Midwest for the last couple of years, and we’ve been driving back and forth and back and forth from New York to Minnesota or Kansas or Oklahoma or Michigan or Wisconsin, which is a lot of driving and a lot of real tedious kinds of things. So we thought it would be a whole lot better if we were just out here. There you go. So and secondly, I really like skiing. My wife really likes paddling. Bemidji has got both, so there you have it.

Ian: [00:13:32] More from Val and Aaron in a bit, but let’s take a moment to zoom out a little bit and talk about the region of Bemidji. I was very lucky to get to chat with Rita Albrecht, who has worked as a planner at city, regional, tribal and state levels and also served on Bemidji City Council and as their mayor. So she is exactly the perspective that we want to give us some context here.

Rita: [00:13:55] Here, you know, our local governments include city, township and county. We don’t have any overarching organization like the Met Council, for example. Um, but the state of Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, of course, has parks and trails and and we really key into them a lot. The county has a parks department and they also build roads. So we try to key into what they do with with their roads and potential trails and parks. But my experience is mainly with the city of Bemidji, not only as a staff person, but also as an elected official. Um.

Ian: [00:14:33] And what, um, what role does HRDC play? What is what is that like?

Rita: [00:14:39] That’s a really good question. HRDC is a regional planning organization. It’s one of, I want to say, 6 or 7 in the state of Minnesota. They’re quasi governmental, created by the legislature. And I want to say 1976, they have taxing authority, a very small taxing authority. But there are several around the state. They don’t all have the same name, but they’re a development commission. Um, and they’re generally speaking a rural, not metro organization. Okay. And they do planning. They do planning. This one Headwaters Regional Development Commission does planning for five counties and, uh, will do things like for communities that don’t have a planner, they’ll do comprehensive plans or parks plans, that kind of thing, to help them, uh, fill the gap of staff that they don’t have.

Ian: [00:15:28] So, like talking like a township that, you know, is outside of city limits and just has, you know, the county above them, like HRDC would help them do stuff. Okay. Yeah. So when I’m thinking about development, the main principle that I’m always keeping in mind is it is good to have development and build high density within an urban core, whether that be a huge city or, you know, a rural town as well. Um, so that that development doesn’t have to spread out into the rural areas surrounding that urban core. But in order for that to happen, you know, you have to have an entity like the county level, for example, that constrains the density that’s allowed outside of like incorporated city limits and then also like a county that is willing to push back against cities who express that they want to annex more land into their borders. Um, you know, in order to like asking them to demonstrate that they have already, uh, achieved a certain level of density, uh, within their borders before allowing them to, you know, continue to expand outwards. So what does the landscape look like up here in the area surrounding Bemidji City?

Rita: [00:16:54] I can’t speak for Beltrami County. Uh, I can only speak for Bemidji and Northern Township because we’ve had a planning organization agreement since 2007. So we planned, uh, we came became a joint planning organization. And so the northern township and actually one at one point Bemidji Township was in the organization too, but they pulled out. But Northern Township and the city of Bemidji are in a joint planning organization. And we, um, HDC actually helped us rewrite the city code so that it incorporated those township, uh, areas as well. And we melded our, uh, planning commission. We melded our planning board to include township elected officials and city elected officials. And that organization has been functioning quite well since 2007. Uh, unfortunately, um, you know, partnerships are hard to maintain, and the current city council is not, um, bought into the partnership as well as those of us in the past. And so most recently, they’ve decided to part ways and they’re in the process of detangling that. But the value of that was that. You know, one can imagine that townships have different development patterns and standards and values than urban areas. Yeah. And the value of that was that we recognized that we need a comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance that incorporates both township values and city values.

Rita: [00:18:37] And we agreed that when we came to the table, uh, township officials, city officials, we were going to take off our local government hat and be the joint planning organization and think of us as a community, what’s best for the community. And so we tried to be forward thinking with things like density, uh, so that, uh, you know, potential extension of city utilities would make sense financially. Right? Um, there were a lot of bumps in the road. I think part of the challenge is that, uh, in order for a city to, um, expand, you have to be able to do annexation. And there’s there was a lot of pushback from township residents on whether or not they wanted to be annexed into the city. And so that was that was part of the challenge. But the goal really was to maintain a density level that would allow us to have utility services, because that’s really important for density. You can’t have, you know, separate sewer systems, individual septic systems on every lot. Right. And, um, and, and so it was a grand experiment. I’m sad that it’s, uh, going to be dissolving. So I think we had a good 20 years of good planning and, and cooperation. Uh, we’ll see what the future brings. Yeah.

Ian: [00:20:07] How do you think all of this has, has, like, what effect has this had on, like, the housing market, you know, is it do you feel like it’s it’s affordable to live in, in Bemidji or is, you know, are things skyrocketing the way that they are in the Twin Cities?

Rita: [00:20:24] Um, the market’s pretty hot here. One of the challenges that Bemidji has is we are a community with a low income level. It’s about, I would say, 34 to $38,000, median family, median family income compared to the state, which is probably 45, 55, maybe more.

Ian: [00:20:45] And that’s, uh, for a family of four. Is that the standard? Okay.

Rita: [00:20:49] But you can look it up at, um, quickfacts.com, which is the census. The census, uh, has quickfacts on, on all of that. But my point is that, um, a lot of people, we have a high, um, rate of rentals here compared to home ownership. Oh, okay. So in the city, 60% of people rent. Mm. And only 40% own.

Ian: [00:21:13] And which you wouldn’t necessarily know just from like biking around town because it’s a lot of single family homes, but they’re mostly being rented out. A lot of them are rented.

Rita: [00:21:23] There’s not a lot of home ownership. And I think that’s a function of the fact that we’re a university town. So a lot of students, sure. It’s also a fact that, you know, when people have are in poverty, they don’t have the wherewithal to buy a home. A lot of younger people aren’t interested in being homeowners. They would rather be more footloose and have an apartment. Uh, yeah.

Ian: [00:21:47] So are there apartment buildings available?

Rita: [00:21:50] And so the boom in housing here has been in multifamily apartments, yes. And we continue to build more multifamily. Uh, there is a desire because those of us of a certain age believe that, you know, home ownership is an important thing, and we should have single family homes and oh my goodness, there aren’t enough for people to buy, right? But honestly–

Ian: [00:22:10] I mean, we’ve built a financial system that, like, relies on home ownership as the mechanism for building wealth.

Rita: [00:22:15] It does. Yeah. And so so there’s that mindset that we need to find a place to do more single family homes in the city. And this city is kind of built out. Right. Unless we annex. Yeah. And so unfortunately what has occurred is that we’ve had urban sprawl and the fringes in the townships, because there really aren’t places for a development to occur, like a nice little subdivision or something within the city. Not very many. A few and a few are happening. Multifamily is happening. Uh, just a very few, uh, single family homes are happening. But generally speaking, single family home development is in the rural area. And and so that doesn’t play in very well to the idea of, um, density or um. You know, access, transportation access, utility access and all of that. So it’s a bit of a conundrum here. Right now in the planning world.

Ian: [00:23:13] Have we seen any like any movement on less conventional like ownership models, you know, like like housing co-ops or land trusts or things like that, that, you know, make it possible for that wealth to stay in the community and, you know, keep the housing costs low.

Rita: [00:23:32] Yeah, that’s a good question. A couple of things the city has done, uh, adopted a tiny house code. So the ability to build on a smaller lot, a smaller house unit. Um, so we haven’t done things that I think we could still. And that zero lot lines where you have a house that sits one side is on the zero lot line. Um, you know, so the setbacks haven’t really changed a lot. The minimum lot size hasn’t changed a lot. And and so there’s that. But I would say that the county just recently moved forward on a housing trust fund. Okay. A model that I have I’m not familiar with. It just happened like last week. So I haven’t really, um, read up on it. But, uh, you know, that’s an opportunity for folks to, you know, get into, have ownership of land that wouldn’t normally they would be out of reach for them. Right?

Ian: [00:24:25] Yeah. So the trust fund that is run by the county or is that right.

Rita: [00:24:31] And so you’re probably familiar in the metro, there are different organizations that have nonprofits basically that do trust fund. They’ll buy property and then they’ll make that available for people to build on. And they don’t have that cost of the land within their, you know, ownership costs. So, um, that’s something that that the county is moving forward on. I’m very pleased. And I am surprised, actually.

Ian: [00:24:57] I hope that construction costs continue to come down so that, uh, that can have as big of an impact as possible. Yeah.

Rita: [00:25:05] One of the challenges that our code has, which is true in most codes across the state of Minnesota because they’re not being updated on a regular basis. But the idea that you can’t have two homes on one lot, and this has perpetuated in Bemidji because of student rentals, there’s been a challenge with parking and parking and yards and taking up all the street parking. And so they they’ve limited you know, our code has limited the number of occupants in a residential and not, you know, they have to be family members. There’s a lot of barriers to having density in our community, even for the housing that we have. So you it um, you can’t if you’re in a single family residential zone, uh, you can’t add an apartment in the basement because that would be a two person dwelling or a two-unit dwelling.

Ian: [00:25:57] And I imagine that a large, large portion of the, you know, surface area of the city is zoned as single family.

Rita: [00:26:06] A lot of it is. Yeah. Mhm. Yeah. So you know, we’re we have adopted a few new zones that include uh multifamily with duplex and whatnot. But you’ll see in the metro where they are allowing multifamilies and single family, you know, up to a six plex apartment, maybe within a single family, uh, street, like on Summit or Grand or over in the Saint Paul area. Um, and that’s something I think that we should look at here is to because I, I don’t think a mix of housing, you know, the old Euclidean, Euclidean, um, planning model was that we’re going to separate uses single family here, multifamily here, industrial here, commercial here, industrial, you know, whatever. And that has proven to be not really helpful. Right. It used to be we had neighborhood grocery stores right within a single family district. And those all of a sudden became not allowed because we zoned them out. Same with multifamily or two person or triplex dwellings within a single family zone. And and that’s been to the detriment of our community. I think that mix of housing can be a positive. Uh, and, um, I think we need to look at that again.

Aaron: [00:27:26] Well, we we sort of, uh, took the adventurous route. So we got an Airbnb for five weeks.

Ian: [00:27:36] Huh. Is that where you’re still at right now?

Aaron: [00:27:38] We’ve got another week.

Ian: [00:27:39] Okay.

Aaron: [00:27:39] And we figured we’ll figure it out when we get here.

Ian: [00:27:44] [nervous laughter] And how’s that going?

Aaron: [00:27:46] So we have a contract to buy a house. Okay. Uh, closes in about four weeks from now. Okay. Uh, we move into, uh, a rental for five months starting August 1st. So we’re all set. Basically, um, we’ve got, like, a two day window to move everything out of the Airbnb into this rental, which is right on the lake. It’s gonna be great. Yeah. Uh, right on the bike path. It’ll be super. And that’ll allow us to finish the closing of the house. Then we can do some work on the house, and then we can move in, you know, in our own sweet time.

Ian: [00:28:23] Nice. Yeah. So we’re talking, like, single family home. You got a family of how many?

Aaron: [00:28:30] One son, so it’s the three of us.

Ian: [00:28:32] Okay. Nice.

Val: [00:28:33] I think it was in line with what we expected. Um, and it’s hard to judge this property versus that property because they’re so different. You know what? How big is it? What does it have? Does it have the makeup of what we were looking for? And we really were looking for something very specific. Um, you know, if you get some area where there’s going to be wildlife, I get water. I really, really wanted to be on water. So and then, you know, to me it was almost like the house is a bonus for us. You know, you don’t have–

Ian: [00:29:14] Would’ve taken a tent in a field?

Val: [00:29:17] Probably, I mean, we talked a lot about it and just trying to figure out exactly what do you want, what do you want? But, um, at the time, to a tent in a field would have been difficult because, um, the supply chain was pretty much halted. Oh, for sure. You couldn’t buy a two by four if you want. Well, you could, but you had to pay a lot of money for it.

Ian: [00:29:39] Yeah. Lumber especially was elevated.

Val: [00:29:41] Didn’t have that appetite to be in the building. And if you need help with anything, um, people are booked out. They were tapped out in, in that regard. So just, you know, finding this fully intact with everything that we wanted was just a huge bonus. And there was a lot of competition out there. It really was, though, I think for us, um, it was it was February when we looked at this place, who’s looking at Bemidji when they have they had six feet of snow on the roof of the house. When we came out to see it, we were probably the only lunatics that were looking for something at that time. And there were, you know, it sounded like there were offers on this house already. Um, but it really was somebody like Scott and Val that are looking for that particular.

Ian: [00:30:41] All right, let’s get some stats from Dave about the 218 Relocate program.

Dave: [00:30:47] So total we have given out $128,000 over the time for the relocations. We’ve had 303 people moved to town of those. Um, there’s certainly children involved, but 245 adult workers. And so that gives you a sense of number of folks. It’s really pretty awesome to see how many–

Ian: [00:31:06] What’s the geographic bounds of, like, where they’re allowed to move to and still take…

Dave: [00:31:10] Roughly the, uh, the school district area, the city of Bemidji. And part of that is because and think about the school district area in Bemidji is almost the size of the seven county metro area. So it’s a pretty good size region. Okay. It’s, uh, our school districts out here are significantly larger than Edina or that type of thing. Sure, sure, sure. But, um, so the reason in part is because some of the funding for this was done by a local foundation, that there is resources can only be spent locally. And so, uh, but we’ve done projects in Blackduck and Red Lake Reservation, that type of thing as well. So, uh, and where these folks are coming from was a bit of a surprise, too. We’ve got 18 different states. One, uh, not, uh, but someone from I think it was Honduras, uh, moved here. I mean, so I know we’ve had conversations with somebody from London. I mean, it’s just kind of amazing how words start spreading, uh, in this remote work world. Yeah. So, so.

Ian: [00:32:05] So not not really reflective of the, like, very broad, uh, national, you know, conversation about, like, oh, elite tech workers from the coasts.

Dave: [00:32:17] Right, right. It’s come from all over. Right? And certainly Twin Cities being a place as well that they’re coming from. But we’ve had people from California, from Seattle, uh, we’ve had people from Texas, uh, we’ve had people from the East Coast. And so, uh, they’re kind of coming from everywhere. Yeah. And it’s not just techie, folks. I mean, as you know, because of pandemic, I think people got more and more comfortable, as did businesses with remote work. Uh, and consequently, it’s not just techies now. It’s really, uh, a diverse skill set of remote workers. Yeah.

Ian: [00:32:48] They’re, you know, integrating into the community are there they’re, are they getting to know each other as well?

Dave: [00:32:56] They are in fact, our, our, um, uh, concierge brings quarterly, has some coming event, brings them all together. We also have a volunteer corps of people who basically are are there to help network them into the community. And so they see each other, meet each other, get to know each other, friends families, get to know each other. Um, and it gets and the importance of that, by the way, is, is the sticking factor, right, right. Um, you mentioned earlier, you know, you’re not really trying to pull people’s wool over people’s eyes. Well, that’s true because it would only take one winter and they wouldn’t be here. Right? and what value is that to us? Uh, the value is, is if they get integrated, they feel comfortable, they become a part of our community. They become active members of our community. They become leaders in our community. And that’s really the intention here. Yeah.

Aaron: [00:33:43] So one of the things that appealed to me as well is the, um, there’s this concierge program that they have. So, you know, as someone who’s brand new to town, they connect you with other kinds of events. They get to know what your interests are, connect you to other folks in the area who might have those interests, like they told me about a running club. And so I was out running last night with a bunch of folks. It was great. Yeah.

Ian: [00:34:09] Any other events have been your favorite that that you found out about through this program?

Aaron: [00:34:15] Uh, there was a music thing. It’s like every Wednesday.

Ian: [00:34:21] I saw signs for that!

Aaron: [00:34:22] I went to that. Um, that was really fun. Um, just kind of learning a little bit more. Again, I that that’s a I’m a little thin on details there just because it’s been so short of a time. Yeah, yeah.

Ian: [00:34:37] And I mean, yeah, your first three weeks is going to be like a whirlwind no matter what.

Aaron: [00:34:41] Yeah. And half of it’s been taken up by looking for houses and.

Ian: [00:34:46] Yeah. No kidding.

Val: [00:34:47] We’ve met a lot of people through the 218 Relocate program. We’ve done a lot of things with them. They’ll have happy hours or, you know, in the summer months we’ll meet at the waterfront. They’ll they’ll do something at the Mayflower Building and then, um, on Wednesday nights. And then there’s the concert series that are on the waterfront. And so they’ll have that going on afterwards. So you can connect with a larger community, not just the 218 Relocate folks. But it’s interesting we see them. It’s such a nice feature of it because whenever you’re anywhere, you’re seeing somebody that also relocated here that you know, from those programs. So we’re big, we’re huge, um, connector people, you know, we we thrive on that. We how you know, people from different. Areas and stuff like that. So it’s it’s a lot of fun for us to know all these people and try and hear their stories, you know, whether they came up here because there’s a lot of golf courses or the fishing opportunities. I mean, it’s it’s really bizarre. There’s, um, some couples that are, um, retired that, that bought properties up here and they, um, you know, go away during the winter months because they don’t like the cold. You know, when we came up here because of the cold and just thought, you know, we love we love being in the cold. There’s so much to do on our property. We’ll snowshoe through the property every night, you know, with our headlamps on in the winter and, um, do different things like that. But it’s it’s, um, Bemidji is such an artsy community and meeting people that are involved in the arts, different arts. It’s it’s fascinating to me it, you know, um, and now because I think we have a lot more free time because we’re not doing things like, hey, um, I’ll meet you for coffee, girlfriend. You know, you. Um, I do have new friends, but we’re not in that space yet. But we do have more available time so we can get involved in so many of the different things, like the Master Gardener program or the basket weaving guild. Um.

Ian: [00:37:13] That’s so quaint! It’s a guild.

Val: [00:37:16] You know, and Scott carves. So he’s part of the carvers group that meets every week. Um, you know, and they just carve. Mhm.

Ian: [00:37:27] You have more time on your hands. Uh, all the mowing notwithstanding. Right.

Scott: [00:37:32] I will take volunteers to come out and learn how to run a tractor, at no charge.

Ian: [00:37:43] Is this your, uh, your Huckleberry Finn moment or was that Tom Sawyer? I forget which one.

Scott: [00:37:48] Yeah.

Ian: [00:37:48] With the fence painting.

Scott: [00:37:50] You got it. You got it. Whitewashing the fence is so much fun. I don’t know if I want to share that much fun, but okay, I will.

Ian: [00:38:00] Out of the goodness of your heart?

Scott: [00:38:01] Out of the goodness.

Dave: [00:38:03] I just think some of the stories. And I’m so glad you’re capturing the stories, because in the end, we I could talk about numbers and we could talk about that, but this is really about people, right? And families and making them feel comfortable and part of a community that that’s, uh, that they feel good about, you know, and feel positive about. And Bemidji is that right size community that’s got this, you know, almost like a delicate balance between your regional center amenities like our Sanford Center or our vibrant downtown. And but also that still has that small town character, you know, and that that, you know, people and, you know, families and, you know, neighbors and that type of thing. And so, um, I it’s just, uh, for people who want that size community, that’s a great place to be.

Ian: [00:38:53] And indeed, dear listener, I ended up running into Val at a farmer’s market later on in the weekend, and I also ran into Aaron at the grocery store, um, over the weekend. So, like, it’s very true, you, when you’re in Bemidji and you know at least a couple of people, you are going to run into them there around. The last person I’m going to introduce to you in this episode is Jordan Lutz, who works as the sustainability project manager at Bemidji State University. In addition to his sustainability focus, I thought it would be valuable to hear a little bit from a Bemidji resident who isn’t connected to the 218 Relocate program. When I asked him if he has seen a lot of students come to Bemidji and fall in love with the area, or if many of them move away after graduating, he had a really good point about why you can find so many amenities in a town of this size.

Jordan: [00:39:46] Whenever I speak with others about the community of Bemidji. So I’m at a conference out of state speaking about initiatives at the university or in the community. Broadly, we talk of the city of Bemidji as a city of approximately 15,000. However, it’s a city that serves as a regional hub for a population closer to 60,000. So obviously that is a hallmark of being a fairly rural, outstate community. But the beauty of serving that larger population base is that we ultimately have all of the amenities one would hope to find in a more urban setting. Sure, sure, sure. Okay, so a student who comes to Bemidji State University or an individual who chooses to relocate to the Bemidji area has access to top class health care, has opportunities for furthering their education through Northwest Technical College and Bemidji State University has opportunities to see, uh, amazing art through various opportunities throughout the year. And then again, back to the outdoor activity.

Ian: [00:40:55] So I’m going to be going to the Anishinaabe, uh, Art Festival this weekend for sure. Yeah.

Jordan: [00:41:01] Glad to hear that. Yeah, absolutely. And thank you, Ian, for bringing up the really big opportunity to learn about this place and the original caretakers, the, uh, present day caretakers, Ojibwe people–Anishinaabe–Bemidji as a city is located geographically within the three largest tribal nations in Minnesota. And that also is something that should be valued, is valued, and is seen as another opportunity. So there’s cultural exchange happening right in northern Minnesota.

Scott: [00:41:38] I would say that was one of the deciding factors of us picking the Bemidji area was the internet, the accessibility to office space, um, and all the support thought that you got. So that when we made this transition, it wasn’t going to be apparent to the people that we work for, right? We wanted to make that seamless from big metropolitan area where we get on the phone, we pull up zoom, whatever it is that we’re doing to do our job. It’s it’s just seamless to the corporations that we work for. So that was that was huge. We looked at bunches of places, our our width and breadth of where we could move, um, was Montana, Iowa, North and South Dakota, um, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan. Yeah. And so our conversations always went around what is the support? Like what’s the internet like. And so that was a big, big deciding factor for us being able to move here.

Ian: [00:42:47] Now the story of how Bemidji got so much fiber uh, is a pretty interesting. So Paul Bunyan Communications is um, is a co-op run telecom company, uh, up in the area. And about 16 years ago, they made the pledge that, uh, all of the broadband that they were going to roll out in the region was going to be fiber. They were going to do nothing else besides fiber. Um, and obviously that, you know, that rollout took time, um, especially in a rural area such as the one surrounding Bemidji. Um, and obviously Paul Bunyan Communications isn’t the only internet service provider in the area. So a lot of people in the region had other, uh, sources of, of internet, you know, not all of it was fiber, but over time, you know, that has really paid off with what apparently is the widest ranging, largest, uh, fiber optic network in the country. Um, and so. Yeah. Almost everywhere in in a huge, uh, range around the city of Bemidji. Uh, everybody has ten gigabit fiber connections. Goodness gracious.

Scott: [00:44:05] We weren’t really concerned when we were looking about what is available in the community, meaning stores.

Ian: [00:44:15] Okay.

Scott: [00:44:16] We I mean, it comes into your thought process, right? But then once you move here and you go, oh, I need, you know, right. And we were really lucky. Bemidji has a lot of stuff. We’ve got Menards and Home Depot and Walmart and Target and and that. But when you’re thinking about relocating. Right. And I imagine this is what people are going to listen to is look at that community and what’s available. Make your list of the things I go and purchase. Mhm. Right. And then understand does does Amazon deliver here.

Ian: [00:45:00] Sure.

Scott: [00:45:01] Right. There are certain instances where we’re we’re getting into it now is because we live on a private road. If something gets delivered versus via USPS, um, we have to go pick it up. If it doesn’t fit in the mailbox, right. Where in the cities. They just got out of their truck, walked it up to the door, set it on the step, took a picture of it. You got a not out here. Yeah, right. So just things to think about if you’re, you know, considering relocating or those types of things. I will say from a, from a bummer standpoint is, um, finding a doctor is tough. Um, I mean, it’s it’s tough. So, um. Yeah.

Ian: [00:45:50] Do you want to speak to that a little bit more or…?

Scott: [00:45:52] Well, I think the only reason I mention it is, is people think about their coming, you know, they want to maybe move into a community like this is ask about the health care and the availability. I mean, we have Sanford here, which I assumed would mean that the availability would be, you know, phenomenal. And just finding a primary care physician, that’s the hard part. Now you break your leg, anything like that, you need surgery. That’s all good and well, but just finding that primary care physician has been really tough for me. So, uh, underlying conditions may be that you have you may want to dive into it deeper. Yeah. When you’re looking into a specific community or city or town to move to and make sure that that’s that’s there for you.

Ian: [00:46:45] Yeah, I was I mean, I was surprised when I moved to the Seward neighborhood and, um, you know, also having a new employer and, you know, having to change dentists because, like, you know, the like, health partners was out of network for me at that point. Um, I was very surprised when I was like, oh, I see like a whole list of, like many, many, many, many in-network dentists that are like within, like a 15 minute walk of my house. I was like, this is awesome. This is like the gold standard. And then like, I’m calling around and the first like five of them were like, no, we’re not taking new patients right now. And I’m like, are you serious? How?

Val: [00:47:22] And that happens a lot up here. And I think that’s where there’s opportunity if you’re in those fields. Another one that Scott has a hard time with is a barber. You know, finding a barber. It seems so basic, but a lot of people aren’t taking new customers to do their hair. They’re not at all. And so if you’re a barber, if you’re a doctor, you know, in the medical fields, there’s so much opportunity up here. Come and be part of the community. Um, yeah. Just some of those basic, basic needs that you would need. And you think, oh, it’s going to be easy to get into that field or whatever.

Ian: [00:48:04] And that’s um, I mean, honestly, like we’re talking about the 218 Relocate program specifically, which is, you know, trying to attract, like teleworkers, um, remote workers. But like having more people in town also strengthens, you know, all of the, you know, the jobs that are location specific, you know, the doctors, the barbers, the, you know, service industry, uh, because, yeah, when you have more people bringing their incomes into town, like, there you go. That, you know, strengthens the entire local economy.

Val: [00:48:37] Yeah, exactly.

Rita: [00:48:45] What is it that makes people come to a community? Well its amenities. What is the lifestyle there? What are the amenities? And and the city’s role, I always felt, was to make the best, safest, most welcoming community that we could. And, you know, one of our mottos was we provide, um, fun. We provide parks, trails, the Sanford Center, um, and, and things for people to do. Uh, and that’s part of what the city can provide for attracting folks is a safe community where you can walk on the, you know, in the streets at night, a vibrant downtown. We invested in our downtown as well, and parks and trails that people want to take their kids to and, and enjoy recreating.

Ian: [00:49:38] I think that your vision of, like the city should be there to provide fun is a beautiful version of socialism that I’ve never heard before.

Rita: [00:49:46] Yeah, yeah. Uh, essential services and fun.

Ian: [00:49:50] Now let’s take a moment to talk about something that I was paying very close attention to. The bikeability of Bemidji. Oh my goodness, everybody, it is so pleasant to bike around in that town. Um, almost every street is just like low volume residential, very low stress streets to to ride on. Uh, except for the one highway that goes straight through town, uh, which is a like 4 or 5 lane road. Um, not pleasant, but seems like there are a lot of other routes, you know, to get around that don’t involve riding directly on it. Um, there’s also, you know, a wonderful regional trail, the Paul Bunyan Trail, by the way. Bemidji, you really got to stop naming literally everything after Paul Bunyan. It gets confusing after a while. Um, but, uh, yeah, great. Great couple of trails that that go north south and east west, you know, through town, um, connecting with other, uh, parts of the region. Um, and also the size of the town, like, it is like a 45 minute bike ride from end to end. Um, the state park is, you know, a half an hour bike ride from downtown Bemidji. Uh, and that’s where I was staying. And it’s like it it was so perfect. It it wouldn’t have even made sense for me to take a car up there. Like taking a little folding bike on the bus was the logical thing to do. It was the perfect way to get around town and experience that that area. Now, the last thing that I was curious about for this story was how do current residents of Bemidji feel about this program? Um, because when I chatted with my friend Natalie Gilly, who lives up in Bemidji and, you know, moved up there, uh, you know, a few years ago, but, you know, not too long ago. Um, she kind of jokingly said that, uh oh, she she moved up there just a little bit too early. If she had just waited a little while longer, then, uh, you know, she could, uh, she could have gotten paid to move to Bemidji. Um, and, you know, obviously she was she was joking. But, you know, anytime that somebody jokes about something like that, you kind of you do think about, like the underlying, you know, is there somebody else who has that attitude? Uh. For realsies. Um, you know, I’ve been thinking about, uh, in the last couple of years with, with, uh, student loan forgiveness being, you know, a big topic. National level, and, you know, people who had already paid off their student loans in the past, kind of some people feeling, uh, irksome that that they didn’t get to take advantage of that. Why do people today who are currently paying off their student loans, why do they get that, that privilege? And, um, you know, my attitude is that, like, you shouldn’t you shouldn’t let that kind of thing prevent government from doing good things for people. Um, but I did want to ask Jordan, uh, you know, what kinds of, uh, reactions he has seen, uh, to the 218 Relocate program from the broader community.

Jordan: [00:53:13] You talk with somebody through the Downtown Business Alliance or the Launchpad entrepreneurial community, and you will hear resounding support for 218 Relocate. Talk with somebody in closer orbit to, say, the Sustainability Commission or the work the Sustainability Office is doing on campus. And you’ll hear a little more hesitation recognition of though thriving community depends on a populace. Yeah, that growth is not always good, right? And that growth without very intentional guardrails can be yeah problematic. Yeah. And that’s the piece that sometimes is a little difficult to struggle with, though I am aware of the potential pitfalls of continued economic growth upon an area I have come to appreciate deeply for its natural beauty. I do have a sense of pride surrounding the 218 Relocate program, and the opportunity to invite individuals to Bemidji and this area, and I really do hope that as we think through how to how to welcome new members of our community in a intentional and sustainable way, ultimately, we’ll be creating a better and more resilient future for not only the individuals who call themselves lifelong Bemidji residents, but those individuals who are finding a new home.

Ian: [00:54:48] Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Streets.mn Podcast. The show is released under a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-commercial, Non-derivative license, so feel free to republish the episode as long as you are not altering it and you are not profiting from it. The music in this episode is by Eric Brandt and the Urban Hillbilly Quartet. This episode was hosted and edited by me, Ian R Buck, and was transcribed by Sherry Johnson. We’re always looking to feature new voices on the Streets.mn podcast, so if you have ideas for future episodes, drop us a line at [podcast@streets.mn]. And yes, you can work remotely. Streets.mn is a community blog and podcast and relies on contributions from audience members like you. If you can make a one time or recurring donation, you can find more information about doing so at [https://streets.mn/donate]. Find other listeners and discuss this episode on your favorite social media platform using the hashtag #StreetsMNPodcast. Until next time, take care.

About Ian R Buck

Pronouns: he/him

Ian is a podcaster and teacher. He grew up in Saint Paul, and currently lives in Minneapolis. Ian gets around via bike and public transportation, and wants to make it possible for more people to do so as well! "You don't need a parachute to skydive; you just need a parachute to skydive twice!"

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