LaunchPad is a space in downtown Bemidji that provides “entrepreneurs, freelancers, start-ups, and professionals an opportunity to co-work, collaborate, network, and learn in an innovative, yet fun, environment.” According to the Greater Bemidji 2017 Annual Report, since 2007, employment has grown 14.6%, which exceeds that of other regional centers. As individuals in communities with high levels of social trust are more likely to be self-employed (Kwon, Heflin, & Ruef, 2013), opportunities for residents to innovate, strengthen the local economy and support the community. Explains Mayor Rita Albrecht, “They have one week [where] someone will come who’s been a successful young entrepreneur and talk about their business….an educational program where they’ll bring in someone to talk about communications and how to do better on social media…, and another week they’ll have someone where you can pitch an idea.”
In the spring of 1999, a group of volunteers from the Bemidji Community Arts Center (now Watermark Art Center) curated the first Bemidji Sculpture Walk. The walk is located in downtown Bemidji to draw more foot traffic to downtown businesses. “We…have a group of folks that just are avid artists and they have, for many years, done the sculpture walk,” raves Mayor Albrecht. “So every June they switch out the sculptures and we have a great sculpture walk in our downtown and that brings people downtown.” Art can be a medium for community development (Lowe, 2000), and by adding new work each year, local and regional artists of all backgrounds have the opportunity to showcase their unique voice. The Sculpture Walk reflects Bemidji’s diversity as well as the city’s natural beauty, helping to build a greater sense of community.
Photo credit: Glabrielle Clowdus
In 2015, 16% of residents living in Beltrami County, in which Bemidji is located, reported severe housing problems, including overcrowding or high housing costs. In response, the city of Bemidji partnered with a non-profit to approve a transitional homeless shelter with wrap-around services by forgiving the sewer and water fees associated with the development. Village of Hope strengthens the community by promoting self worth and independence through the provision of temporary shelter and supportive services for families experiencing homelessness. Likewise, the city has in many cases forgiven permitting fees and hook up fees for developers willing to build low-income, and affordable housing, including Habitat for Humanity’s project. The challenge comes from the less than 1% vacancy rate in Bemidji, which limits families’ ability to find affordable housing.
Village of Hope
Photo credit: Sandy Hennum of Village of Hope
Bemidji’s Shared Vision addresses issues of racial disparity and bias, as well as promotes and embraces cultural understanding and respect between the Native and non-Native populations. In 2009, Shared Vision commissioned a community study on racial attitudes in the Bemidji area, which revealed that half of the Native Americans surveyed said race relations were poor and that they faced discrimination in the job market and in housing. Events aimed to improving race relations include ‘Cultural Connections’, a community celebration with food, drinks, music, live entertainment, workshops and information resources at the Lake Bemidji waterfront park and ‘Everything You Want to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask’ meetings in community spaces. Opportunities for such conversations have been shown to strengthen the social cohesion of neighborhoods and individuals’ connection to and integration with their community (Aiyer, Zimmerman, Morrel-Samuels, & Reischl, 2015).
Bemidji Ojibwe Language Project is enacted by more than 150 area businesses to support the Ojibwe community and showcase Bemidji’s diversity–12.32% of Bemidji’s population is Native American. The project created a movement among local business owners to include meaningful phrases from the Ojibwe language on signage. According to Michael Meuers and Rachelle Houle (two volunteers who started the initiative), while three Native American communities are situated in Bemidji, not many connections between these communities and local residents were created in the past. Celebrating the Ojibwe language through store signage helps Native Americans feel more welcome and enables non-Native residents to learn about the Native culture and traditions.
Bemidji is the central hub of the Red Lake Indian Reservation, White Earth Indian Reservation, and the Leech Lake Indian Reservation. In 2010, the Sanford Center opened and has become the center of social, cultural and recreational events in Bemidji and the surrounding regional community. In 2015, community members organized the historic Bemijigamaag Powwow at the Sanford Center, attended by over 3,500 community members. The three Tribal Nations were involved, as well as city and state officials including Governor Mark Dayton, facilitating conversations between Native and non-Native community members as well as leaders of the tribes, city, and state. “These are all things that have been helping to build race relations in our community. That’s not to say that we’re done. It’s an on-going process,” reflects Mayor Albright.