Bemidji City Council approves solar panels for Tourist Information Center

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Jul. 19—BEMIDJI — After months of discussion, a proposal for solar panels to be installed on the Tourist Information Center has been approved by the

Bemidji City Council.

During its meeting on Monday, July 18, the council was given four proposals from different solar panel companies on the estimated costs and rebates the installation would involve, before ultimately accepting a proposal from Real Solar.

"This is a really good idea," said Ward 4 Councilor Emelie Rivera. "This is something that in the end benefits our tax base and, more importantly, the long-term environmental needs of the community."

In addition to saving the city money in the long run, members of the council and city staff also see the installation of solar panels on such a public building as an opportunity for education on solar and renewable energy sources.

"It would make a lot of sense for us to use this as an opportunity for education," said Marcia Larson, director of Bemidji's

Parks and Recreation Department.

Real Solar's proposal had an estimated cost of $73,106, with a potential rebate of $36,553. The payback period with the rebate is 14 years, and with everything factored in the total cost to the city is estimated at $36,533.

"I know enough about solar to know it's worth the effort for our city," said Ward 1 Councilor Audrey Thayer.

The rebate isn't guaranteed, however, since it requires an application process with Ottertail Power. Because of this uncertainty, some members of the city council expressed concerns and chose to vote against accepting Real Solar's proposal.

"Right now, I kind of see this project as a huge want. But at the same time, does the community really need it?" asked At-Large Councilor Daniel Jourdain, who maintained his support for solar initiatives in general.

When it came to a vote, Real Solar's proposal was accepted in a 4-3 vote. Jourdain, Ward 3 Councilor Ron Johnson and Mayor Jorge Prince voted against the proposal, based on the potential increase in cost if the city doesn't receive the rebate.

Also on the agenda was hearing the results of a feasibility study done on the Neilson Reise Arena meant to look into the viability of reusing the facility for a new purpose.

Closed down since April 2020

as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, parts of the building have experienced deterioration. That, in combination with outdated equipment, has led to ongoing discussions on what the future of the building might look like.

Originally an ice rink, seven potential options for the space were presented by Tom Betti, from the 292 Design Group who performed the study.

Each option maintained the half of the building that is used by the Bemidji Curling Club, and also included upgrades to meet accessibility and fire suppression requirements. Where they differed was in how the arena's other half of the building would be used.

The options and their respective budget estimates were as follows:

* Equipment Storage, Version 1: $2.1 to $2.4 million

* Equipment Storage, Version 2: $2 to $2.3 million

* Basketball and Volleyball Courts: $3.8 to $4.2 million

* Pickleball Courts: $4.3 to $4.8 million

* Wrestling: $4.3 to $4.8 million

* Indoor Turf: $4.3 to $4.8 million

* Demolition of the Arena: $1.1 to $1.3 million

"What this is is information gathering to let you know if this facility is even usable," Larson explained. "At this point we're really just trying to determine if we can reuse it."

No action from the council was requested during the session, but discussion was had on what, if any, of these options would be best for the building and the community.

One primary concern was if the arena was repurposed to any type of athletic facility, whether it would compete with

plans for a Wellness Center

that's been proposed for the Railroad Corridor in downtown Bemidji.

Concerns over finances also were brought forward, as multiple council members noted the number of expensive projects the city is already engaged in or might have no choice but to consider in the near future.

"I just think about pumping the brakes right now," Prince said. "We have a city hall that may cost more and may not be worth saving, and then we have our roads and our streets. These are important things to think about."

These financial considerations are all the more relevant, Prince explained, because of the challenges posed by inflation and other strains on the national and the local economy.

"We're kind of living in some unique times right now. It's not like it was a couple of years ago," Prince said. "That weighs very heavily on me when I start thinking about spending city resources."

Other council members saw the opportunity to revitalize the facility as one that could benefit the community and draw more people into Bemidji.

"This was one of the major city facilities that suffered as a result of COVID," Rivera said. "We can still revive it as an asset."

Since no decision was required during the session, no action was taken by the council toward one option or another. The future of the Neilson Reise Arena remains uncertain, but the discussion will likely continue throughout the coming months.

"This is a long-term discussion," said Ward 5 Councilor Lynn Eaton, "we're nowhere near making a decision."