HomeTop StoriesGreater Bemidji announces YMCA as new operating partner for proposed wellness center

Greater Bemidji announces YMCA as new operating partner for proposed wellness center

April 13—BEMIDJI — A YMCA could become the saving grace for Bemidji’s Rail Corridor, with an announced partnership between Greater Bemidji and the YMCA of Cass and Clay Counties to build a wellness center in the area slated for development.

The announcement comes less than a year after Sanford Health, which originally planned to own and operate the wellness center,

withdrew from this commitment last June.

“That could have been the death knell for the project, but our board decided it was very important to move forward because of the impact on our community,” said Dave Hengel, executive director of Greater Bemidji.

Fundraising was put on hold as Greater Bemidji scrambled to keep the project alive, and after months of searching, Hengel believes it has found the right partner in the YMCA.

“We went through an RFP process and there were several very good organizations interested, but it was clear that (the YMCA) was a perfect fit for Bemidji and exactly consistent with what we want,” he said.

Several factors made the YMCA of Cass and Clay Counties stand out, including its identity as a mission-driven nonprofit organization that prioritizes accessibility and community service.

“We want the membership to reflect our community, and that is the strength of the YMCA,” Hengel said.

In its main operating area of ​​Fargo, North Dakota, it also offers child care, something it could expand to Bemidji as part of the wellness center project. There is also a possibility that the organization could own the facility in addition to operating it, although the details have yet to be determined.

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When initially informed about the possibility of a wellness center in Bemidji, the YMCA of Cass and Clay Counties declined. It wasn’t until Steve Smith, the organization’s president, had further conversations with Hengel that interest arose.

“As we got to know each other better and learned more about the area, we thought, ‘Maybe there’s an opportunity here,’” Smith said. “(A location in Bemidji) could create a hub for us to serve the community and the entire area.”

In addition to meeting the needs of those in Bemidji, Smith hopes to work with the neighboring tribes – especially White Earth, as it is located between Bemidji and Fargo – to provide a variety of needed services in the broader region. He also hopes to work with local organizations and nonprofits.

“We’ve invested a lot in it and we have a long history of doing this work. It’s what we do every day,” he said.

Accessibility will also be a priority, as the YMCA already uses a model that offers grants and other methods to ensure community members have the opportunity to access its services.

“We have a whole system around access; 35% of our children in child care are on scholarships, 13 to 15% of our membership are on scholarships,” Smith said. “We believe that everyone should pay something because we believe people value what they pay for, but we will make it happen.”

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Eligibility for a grant is determined by factors such as the number of people in a family and total household income, and awards are set on a graduated scale with that in mind. The end goal is for the YMCA to become a welcoming place for everyone, regardless of their circumstances.

“It is the power of being together, connecting, communicating and understanding each other,” says Hengel. “If we do this right, we’ll build community, and that’s what we want.”

Now that this partnership has been established, Hengel says the next steps will be a return to fundraising and finalizing plans.

The original estimate for the wellness center project at the time was $35 million

it was first proposed in 2017.

With rising costs in recent years, the same budget will result in a smaller project.

“What we proposed with Sanford Health in 2017 cannot be built for the same price,” Hengel said. “There will be choices to be made (about what to include), but we are starting that process.”

The YMCA’s expertise in projects like these will be an asset; Smith said the organization knows how to assess what works and what doesn’t in a community.

“We know what works, what makes people tick and what helps them be successful,” he said. “It’s about what the community needs, and those are the things that are going to be assessed.”

What exactly the center will include is still being determined, but a rough timeline has already been set. If everything goes according to plan, the rail corridor would be rehabilitated and infrastructure constructed in 2025; construction could start as early as 2026.

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The city of Bemidji, which would not own the wellness center, would help with infrastructure costs, aided by grants and tax increment financing plans.

“If we can do what we think we can do, this will be the largest private sector development in Bemidji history,” Hengel said.

There are costs associated with all of this. Therefore, another priority will be restarting fundraising. With a goal of $25 million, Greater Bemidji has already raised 80%, including one

$10 million donation from Sanford Health.

Once fundraising resumes, which Hengel expects in the coming months, it will be open to community donations, meaning anyone who wants to see the project completed can contribute what he or she can.

“It’s going to come back to the community and how much we want it,” he said. “People will have the opportunity to donate and make this vision a reality.”

Now that he has traveled the road to get to this point, Hengel is confident in the viability of the project, especially with a partner as strong as the YMCA.

“It’s undoubtedly the right thing for our community,” he said. “What it will do for downtown, for recreation, sports tourism, health and wellness, I talk about it as changing the trajectory of the community.”

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