Dave Hengel Column: Community update on the proposed wellness center

I’m proud that the Bemidji Alliance partners have become a model of collaboration — supporting each other, working together, sharing staff and resources — all to better serve the Bemidji region.

Last week, I had the opportunity to update the Bemidji City Council on the proposed wellness center. In an effort to keep our entire community informed, I’d like to use this month’s column to provide the same update that may help answer any questions community members may have.

Before digging into the update, let me share this. Dan Rather once said, “If all difficulties were known at the outset of a long journey, most of us would never start out at all.” Truth be told — that may be true about the wellness center project.

When Sanford Health initially approached Greater Bemidji to help lead the effort to develop a wellness center a full seven years ago, I would never have imagined we’d still be at it today. Even more, if we had known there would be this many “difficulties” I wonder if we’d have said yes.

While the long journey has been hard, it has also been very valuable. It has helped me see clearly how important the wellness center is to our community. In my career, I’ve never had so many local folks approach me with encouragement to keep pushing forward — to not give up.

People want things to do, especially for our kids and in the long winter months. Parents want a place to host youth sporting events that keep our kids home on the weekend. Businesses want a place that will help recruit workers to our area.

Our downtown is longing for an initiative that will give our already vibrant downtown a boost. We continue to push forward — despite the difficulties — because this opportunity is important to our community, important enough to use every ounce of effort we have to make the wellness dream real.

By way of background, Bemidji has talked about the need for a wellness center for decades. For many reasons, early projects failed to materialize. The dream got a significant boost a few years back when Sanford Health announced its interest in donating $10 million toward a wellness facility.

The “Sanford Dividend” as they called it, was the nudge our community needed to begin new efforts to develop a wellness center. Since that announcement, Sanford Health and Greater Bemidji have partnered to move the wellness center forward. Community listening sessions were held, pace-setter fundraising began, a preferred site was chosen, and preliminary design work began.

With that background, let me share where we are at today:

In recent months, Greater Bemidji has taken the lead in moving the project forward. We are part of a strong team that consists of the St. Paul Port Authority, JLG Architects, Kraus Anderson, Sanford Health and the Upper Midwest Alliance of YMCAs.

In addition, the city of Bemidji has been a critically important partner and a team of local volunteers has led the effort to raise funds to make the dream a reality. It takes a team, and we have a passionate team driving the development of the wellness center.


I’m proud that the Bemidji Alliance partners have become a model of collaboration — supporting each other, working together, sharing staff and resources — all to better serve the Bemidji region.

The project is very complex with parallel work in operational planning, right-sizing the facility, project fundraising and rail corridor site planning (including clean-up and infrastructure). The following are updates on each:

Wellness center operational plan: We remain committed to a privately-owned and operated wellness center. In recent months, Greater Bemidji has reached out to the Upper Midwest Alliance of YMCAs, which provides support to each of the YMCAs in our region.

With the approach of partnering with an existing YMCA organization, we are in conversation with the YMCAs of Cass and Clay counties (Fargo), Duluth Area YMCAs and the Itasca County Family YMCA (Grand Rapids). In the coming weeks, we would like to formalize a partnership with one of the YMCAs, with the goal of having an existing YMCA help design and operate the Bemidji wellness center.

Right-sizing the wellness facility: Sanford Health did a great job gathering community input and identifying regional needs. As you might expect, the needs are significant and it’s clear that the wellness center alone simply will not be able to meet all the community’s needs.

Based on our fundraising and financial projections, we believe we can support a project in the range of $30-35 million and 70,000 square feet of space. Simply put — choices will need to be made. We will have to take into consideration several factors when looking at downsizing, including community needs, operational costs and revenues and donor intent.

Our team at JLG and the YMCA both have extensive experience with wellness centers and are great assets in our ‘right-sizing’ efforts.

Project fundraising:  Until we have a clear vision for the wellness center programming and operations, Greater Bemidji has paused its fundraising efforts. To date, we have raised $21.2 million through pacesetter fundraising efforts. I am very grateful to our donors to date.

We have kept them informed of our progress and asked for their patience as we reimagine the project. The fundraising target remains $25 million and we are confident we can reach that goal.

Rail corridor site planning:  Greater Bemidji continues to work closely with the St. Paul Port Authority on-site planning for the rail corridor — which includes contamination cleanup and infrastructure development. The Port Authority’s expertise has been absolutely critical to keeping the project moving forward.

The Port is prepared to move forward on state Redevelopment and Contamination Cleanup grant applications and site work once we have a final plan for the wellness center. In other words, once we have a firm wellness plan, we are prepared to hit the ground running.

In summary, progress on the wellness center and rail corridor redevelopment continues. We are committed to ensuring the ultimate wellness center concept is financially sustainable and meets our most pressing community needs. Reimagination and redesign take time, but Greater Bemidji remains deeply committed to the original vision of the redevelopment.

We are grateful for the patience and partnership of the Bemidji City Council, as well as our community members, wellness center donors and project partners.

Let me close with a simple request for our community. Upon hearing of reports he was dying, Mark Twain was said to have written, “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Well…I am fully aware of the buzz spreading in our community that the wellness center project is dead. As you now have heard, the rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

If you have questions about the wellness center or our progress, please reach out directly to us to get accurate information. Although it doesn’t spread as fast, good information directly from those involved is always better than the community rumor mill. All you need to do is ask.