Bemidji feels the hate over Paul Bunyan park renovation

Backhoe excavated around Paul and Babe.
The park surrounding Bemidji's iconic Paul Bunyan and Babe statues is under construction. The project is several weeks behind, so tourists this summer might have to take their pictures from a distance while work is going on.
John Enger | MPR News

Nate Mathews knew people were angry. He just didn't know how angry.

"I had to gauge if this was just a flash in the pan, or a full blown tsunami of anger," the new Bemidji city manager said recently.

Paul Bunyan Park, home to Bemidji's iconic Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues, is under construction this summer, part of a $1.5 million renovation project. But as the new design began to take shape, Mathews started getting calls.

The callers hated the new plaza design.

Specifically, they hated a small hill, about 2 feet high, raised with boulders in front of the plaid giant. The hill was meant to give tourists a better angle for photos, but locals told Mathews it crowded the statue and prevented large groups from getting good pictures.

A few of the callers were in tears, Mathews said, and a load of wet concrete was on its way to finish off the plaza.

"I had to make a call," he said. "Let's hold off on the concrete for a few days."

That was three weeks ago and work on Paul Bunyan Park is still sluggish.

Letters were sent to the Bemidji Pioneer newspaper. Facebook discussions over Paul and Babe got heated. Then a few days after Mathews held off the concrete, a crowd of about 20 impassioned locals descended on a City Council meeting, demanding the raised hill and all the boulders be removed.

The council voted to rethink the design.

The changes will cost roughly $65,000. That pays for removal of 100,000 pounds of boulders, a regrade of the plaza to prevent flooding, and extra concrete.

But the money isn't the main issue — it's the time.

"We're about three weeks behind," project foreman Logan Olson said last week from the seat of his backhoe.

A family posed for photos.
A family posed for photos at the feet of Paul Bunyan, June 25, 2015, taking advantage of a short pause in construction.
John Enger | MPR News

Logan, who works for Reierson Construction, was working alone. Typically, he'd have at least three other workers. But city officials are still rushing to work out the details of the new design, so he can't do much.

Bemidji has a short construction season. Crews pack jobs into just a few warm months. A three-week delay means the subcontractors Reierson Construction hired to pour concrete and lay sod are working on other projects.

The delay also means crowds of tourists descending on Bemidji this weekend for the Fourth of July will have a tough time getting their pictures with Paul and Babe. The earth around the statues is torn into mounds of gravel and mud puddles.

If not for the community outcry, the original construction schedule called for the plaza area to be done by now. Olson said the holiday weekend was his deadline for that part of the project.

Parks and Recreation Director Marcia Larson said on Monday that she can only hope the plaza will be finished before the Bemidji All School Reunion on July 16.

Mathews, who took over as city manager in May, had no idea just how important an 18-foot tall concrete statue could be to a town.

"There's an emotional connection to that statue," he said. "It's really kind of a sacred place to Bemidjians."

Bonnie Darkow was one of many locals who didn't like the original park renovation design. She runs the Lumberjack Shack, a souvenir store across Bemidji Avenue from Paul and Babe.

She said the raised hill didn't leave enough room for group photos — and without photos, tourists don't get out of their cars.

The construction has been hurting her business, she said. Construction over the Fourth of July weekend will be especially bad. But seeing work continue for an extra few weeks is a price she's willing to pay for a plaza design that she actually likes.

"At some point they're going to get it done and it's going to be beautiful," she said. "That's what we need."

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