Rumors abound about another large financial institution is leaving downtown Bemidji.Â Word on the street is that Wells Fargo will be closing their large downtown facility, possiblyÂ around the first of the year, Â leaving their drive up unit operating across the street. There is talk that they will be expanding their other facility on Paul Bunyan Drive near Target.
This comes on the heels of last years departure of First National Bank’s large downtownÂ building with them also choosing to leave their downtown drive up facility. Hope was that the main building could have been sold, but bank buildings with vaults are a tough sell, unless your another bank…and most banks don’t want to sell to the competition. After being empty for almost 2 years, First National sold it to the Bemidji School District who remodeled it for their alternative schools. And don’t forget that Headwaters Credit Union left downtown this year for their new Tru Star building also on Paul Bunyan Drive (by the way there are now 11 banks and credit unions in just about 1 mile on Paul Bunyan Drive!)
Banks are an important part of an active downtown. Banks are a draw, bringing manyÂ people into the areaÂ cashing checks, making deposits and most important having money in hand. They stop for coffee, for shopping, to visit retailers nearby.Â Not only the bank customers, but the bank employees themselves become part of the downtown. Most banks have a good number of well paying professional employees who eat lunch, get their oil changed, and spend money downtown. Finally, there is the bank building itself. Many people were disappointed that the First National Downtown facility was turned into a school. (Not exactly like having a growing expanding business filling the gap of the missing bank employees). You certainly can’t blame First National as they did with their facility as they had to. I am sure the Wells Fargo building will be no easy sale.
Having lived here over 6 years I have found out that the ambiance and charm of downtown is very important to our citizens. In many surveys people have indicated thatÂ the downtownÂ is a high priority.Â Bemidji though is no different than any other downtown and is struggling. Storefront vacancies are many and the assortment of retail leaves a lot to be desired. A lot has been invested in the area, from lightposts, to paving, to music. Just over a year ago an extensiveÂ study was done involving downtown property owners, businesses, and the citizens on a long range plan for the Southshore/Downtown and the railroad corridor. A lot of excitement was created and many good plans were developed…from new directional information signs, to plans for residential development, to storefront renovations, to new retail concepts. Unfortunately, all this takes money, and the economic drag we continue to suffer through is taking its toll on our beloved downtown and its plans.
There has been some successes downtown. Bemidji Design Center is an exciting store with eclectic taste that has taken over a huge chunk of property. The Blue Ox and the Toasty Beaver along with Backyard BBQ have entered upon the beverage and food scene. Bad Cat Creations has been a nice addition. And the art community continues to work hard with its First Friday programs and the art sculpture walk. And the Harmony Food Coop has purchased the old Headwaters Credit Union for an new natural food store. And the Chief Theatre continues to bring people downtown with a strong entertainment lineup.Â
With this year being an election year, I feel a valid question to ask our mayoral and city council candidates are what plans they have for a revival of our downtown?Â Its obviously important to a lot of people, and the city along with the Downtown Development Association needs to be the driver of a solid committment to our downtown.