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Everybody in Bemidji watching arena project from scratch

In Bemidji it seems everybody — from city manager John Chattin on down — is interested to watch the city’s new arena rise from simply a diagram to a full-fledged facility.
John Chattin chuckled. "People ask me all the time if this is the biggest project I have ever worked on," said the city manager for Bemidji. "I tell them yeah — but only by about $89 million or so."

Chattin is currently a bit of a one-man gang supervising the startup of the Regional Events Center, a $90.7 million facility that will be built in the next two years in the northern Minnesota city. The arena, which is scheduled to open in January 2011, is a bit of lifesaver for Bemidji State University, which currently plays Division I men’s and women’s hockey in Glas Fieldhouse, a 42-year old facility that was perfectly acceptable for when it was built. It is not to suggest the school’s membership as a D-I player was in danger until the funding came together last spring.

A 300-page marketing plan helped convince the Minnesota legislature to kick the final needed amount – roughly $23 million. The new arena will seat 4,000 people and have 25 suites. That may not seem like much, but it is roughly a third of the entire city’s population.

Right now, all Chattin has is an architectural design and a couple of people working. Fairly soon, however, the town Paul Bunyan made famous figures to be corking with activity. "We expect to award the construction contacts and decide on hotel partners no later than January 1," Chattin said. "After that, we’ll start to hire an Operations Staff and the thing really takes off."

Chattin, who came to the city manager’s job two years ago after working in Benson (in the central part of Minnesota), is hoping that part goes better than the early part of this process. His first go-around with the architects caused a few headaches. "They came up with a three-story approach that simply didn’t work," he sighed. "Eventually, we got a two-level concept that everybody likes." The architects, Leo Daly, are learning, too. Although they are handling the upgrades at Lamar University, the firm is better known for building such facilities as Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, DC and the canopy at the Denver International Airport.

In a bigger city, you don’t always worry about things like that. But this is Bemidji and Chattin knew full well he couldn’t walk into his barbershop or a restaurant and expect any peace unless everybody was in sync. "We’ve been talking to everybody at Bemidji State from the AD to the hockey coaches on just about every detail," Chattin said. Although no one arena is being used as a guide, Chattin said the Laredo (TX) Entertainment Center, which is currently home to a hockey and arena football team, is being used as an example. Unfortunately, Chattin said he won’t be able to go visit the place in, say, January when the thermometer frequently shoots below zero in town. "Bemidji State sent some folks down there last month," he said, sounding a bit sad about it.

While $90-million building projects are commonplace in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, nobody has ever seen like this before in Bemidji. "We have a great opportunity here," Chattin said. "We can build this place so it can be used for just about anything. We will be able to hold events like concerts, circuses, conventions and dirt bike races in there as well as volleyball and basketball games." After ceding such events to Grand Forks and Fargo, Bemidji is hoping to use the building to become a bit of an arena player in the future. Although Chattin isn’t expecting AC/DC or even Matchbox 20 to hit town any time soon — well — a fellow can dream, can’t he?

The Beaver hockey teams will be the main tenant, though. At first, the hockey folks wanted to be able to practice there and then changed their mind and wanted to play games there.

But building an arena from scratch is quite an adventure. "I basically take the REC with me wherever I go these days," Chattin said. And, knowing how small towns are, one suspects he is getting a lot of advice along the way.