Bemidji: A tale of two economies

Earth moving machine
An earth moving machine works to make room for a pipeline that will go underneath a road near Bemidji High School. The Alberta Clipper pipeline is being constructed from Hardisty, Alberta to Superior, Wis., and means hundreds of jobs in the area.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Bemidji is the Minnesota city with the third highest peak in unemployment, at more than 17 percent.

Getting a read on Bemidji's economy depends on where you look these days. You can find both ongoing struggle and, believe it or not, boom times. It's a tale of two economies.

There have been a few large, high profile factory layoffs in the Bemidji area. But the city's jobless rate soared because of smaller layoffs as well, where businesses cut jobs just one or two at a time.

It wasn't news when Mike Mohler lost his job as a radio advertising salesman back in May of 2008. Since then, Mohler has filled out applications at close to 100 businesses. Sitting at his home computer, Mohler reads from his latest rejection letter.

"'You were not selected. Good luck in future endeavors.' And then the publisher signed off on it," he said. "I've got a stack of those kinds of responses."

Mohler is 56 years old. He and his wife have lost their health insurance. His unemployment benefits come to an end in December, unless there's an extension. Mohler says despite a degree from Bemidji State University and years of sales experience, no one will hire him.

Ainsworth Lumber Company plant
Canadian-owned Ainsworth Lumber Co. permanently closed this plant in Bemidji, along with plants in Grand Rapids and Cook.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"I grew up here. I have so many business contacts and personal contacts. And I just can't crack the ice, I just can't get through to anybody. It's frustrating," said Mohler.

Many of the area's small-scale layoffs have been in the construction industry, one of the state's hardest hit sectors. New home construction in the Bemidji area has withered to well less than half of what it was in 2006.

Howie Zetah owns a mid-sized construction company that a few years ago employed close to 25 people. Now, it's about half that.

"We're tightening our belt," said Zetah. "I've had to lay some people off. I've got very good people, and it hurts to lay someone off, because you're dealing with families here."

In good times, Zetah's company would build half a dozen custom homes a year. Now, Zetah and other contractors are taking smaller jobs like remodeling and even minor carpentry repair jobs, just to keep busy. Zetah says people are scared to spend money.

Looking for work
Mike Mohler, 56, lost his job as a radio advertising salesman in May 2008. He's been unemployed and looking for work ever since. Mohler looks over a list of nearly 100 businesses where he's filled out job applications.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"I think people have the ability to spend money, and to build and to do things that they wanted to do. They're just unsure, and their confidence in our economy and where we're going to be a year from now isn't there," said Zetah.

But there may be signs that's changing. Zetah just found out a homebuilding project that had been cancelled is back on again.

While Zetah wonders if that's the start of a turnaround, other businesses are booming.

At a neighborhood bar and grill on Bemidji's south side, waitress Laurie Thomas is making a lot more money in tips these days. Thomas says business has nearly doubled since oil pipeline workers started showing up.

"It has been a tremendous change. Once they came to town, it's just been packed here every night," said Thomas. "They'll buy rounds for everyone and not really worry about the money at all."

Late this summer, Enbridge Energy began building a crude oil pipeline from Canada, across northern Minnesota to Superior, Wis. The Bemidji area alone saw an influx of close to 800 well-paid pipeline workers. Some were hired locally, and some come from other parts of the country.

Bar business is good
Business has nearly doubled at this Bemidji bar and grill since pipeline workers arrived in town late this summer. Waitress Laurie Thomas checks in on customer John Billingsley, a pipeline worker from Texarkana, Ark.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

The pipeliners have gobbled up rental housing and motel rooms. John Billingsley is a welder who came all the way from Texarkana, Ark. He says pipeline workers are buying everything from big screen TVs to cookware.

"Clothes, tires, automotive parts ... beds, chairs ... crock pots, skillets, you name it. I mean, they're buying everything," said Billingsley.

Pipeline workers will spend millions of dollars in the Bemidji area over the next eight to 10 months.

And there's another project stimulating the local economy. The City of Bemidji is building a $33 million facility that includes a hockey arena for Bemidji State University. By winter, the project will put 250 people to work. Some of those workers say without it, they'd probably be unemployed.

Bemidji's jobless rate has fallen dramatically since it peaked in February. It's now around 11 percent, but that's still way above normal.

Bemidji Regional Events Center
The City of Bemidji began construction last spring on its regional events center, which will include an arena for Bemidji State University's hockey teams. The $33 million facility has so far employed more than 100 people, but that number will grow to around 250 when the facility is enclosed this winter.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

The problem is, Bemidji's boom in commercial construction hasn't spread to other parts of the area's economy.

Northern Minnesota's important timber industry is still on its knees because of the bust in new home construction. Late last year, Ainsworth Lumber Co. permanently shut down its plant in Bemidji and laid off 140 workers. That, in turn, put some loggers and haulers in the region out of business.

Economists say the shutdown took $90 million out of the region's economy.

But it doesn't end there. Factories producing machine parts, electrical wiring and drapery fabrics have cut hundreds of jobs, too.

Even as the recession appears to be over, first-time claims for jobless benefits in September jumped 18 percent over the same period last year.

The jobless rate in the overall Bemidji region is lower than in the city itself, but for both areas, unemployment remains well above average for this time of year.

Chris Kuzel
Chris Kuzel, 51, was laid off from her manufacturing job last February. Now she's enrolled at Northwest Technical College in Bemidji, studying to be a pharmaceutical technician.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

In the eyes of Dave Hengel, the Bemidji area's economy is tenuous at best. Hengel

"I don't think the pain is done yet," said Dave Hengel, who heads economic development at the Headwaters Regional Development Commission in Bemidji. "I think there's still some businesses that are struggling."

"Is there light at the end of the tunnel? I sure hope so, and I think so. But at this point, it's the most difficult economy I've been in in the 22 years I've been here."

Some economic experts say this recession is likely to reshape the area's economy. The timber industry, for example, has been devastated, but some lumber mills survived by reducing costs and finding new niches for wood products. That includes a growing interest in tapping timber for green energy biofuels.

Another sign of that transformation is that unemployed workers are heading back to school. Post-secondary schools in Bemidji saw some of the highest enrollment increases in the state. At Northwest Technical College, for example, enrollment has jumped by nearly 17 percent.

One of those new students is Chris Kuzel, 51. She was part of the 100 layoffs earlier this year at a wiring manufacturer in Bemidji, where she had worked for 15 years.

"When I got laid off, I had no education or anything to fall back on," said Kuzel. "Here I am, going back to school to get that education that I should have gotten years ago."

Kuzel qualifies for the state's dislocated worker program, which pays for up to two years of school. She's hoping to get into health care, one of the state's most stable industries. Kuzel is studying to be a pharmaceutical technician.

"School is hard after being out for 30 years. It's been tough. I'm doing it because I have to. But it's not the easy way out," said Kuzel. "It would be a lot easier going after and taking a lesser paying job. But I decided after 15 years I was going to come out of this with something to fall back on next time."

Right now, the question is whether there will be enough of a recovery to create jobs for Kuzel and others getting retrained when they graduate. So far, the signs are mixed at best.