Living great in the 218
Greater Bemidji’s relocation program is attracting telecommuters to Beltrami Electric Cooperative’s service area.
Amy and Håkon Strande have 22 years of larger-than-life love stories to tell. Even their first week together sounds like screenplay fodder.
“I met her on a Greek island,” said Håkon, a native of Norway whose heart was pickpocketed by an American.
“We were both vacationing on the same island for three days,” Amy reminisced. “We met the first day and found each other again the third day.”
With more than two decades of life in the Seattle suburbs, impressive careers with Microsoft and a daughter who just recently left the nest, the Strandes (and their pup, Scooter) were ready to return to the waterside – this time, on Little Bass Lake in Bemidji, Minnesota. They are two of more than 50 telecommuters who have taken advantage of 218 Relocate, an incentive program launched by the economic development minds at Greater Bemidji.
Erin Echternach, Greater Bemidji assistant director, says the organization’s board had been discussing workforce development for years, hoping to proactively find a solution to an anticipated workforce shortage. When COVID-19 hit the country in 2020, those discussions turned quickly into action.
“Because of the pandemic and because of the fiber-optic gigabit internet infrastructure that we have – it’s so widely available in our county and our region – we wanted to create a program that highlighted that specifically,” Erin said of 218 Relocate. “We thought, everyone’s working from home, so why don’t we try to recruit these telecommuters who can literally work anywhere? They can choose where they want to be, instead of needing to be where the job is.”
218 Relocate’s Telecommuter Relocation Program incentivizes newcomers with perks (valued at nearly $2,500) that emphasize the unique resources of Bemidji. Eligible applicantswho work remotely for a company headquartered outside of the region receive a package including six months of fiber-optic gigabit internet service through Paul Bunyan Communications, a one-year membership to Bemidji’s LaunchPad co-working space, a membership to the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, and free access to the Community Concierge Program, which matches participants with a Bemidji-native-and- loving-it volunteer.
Beltrami Electric Cooperative (BEC) CEO and Greater Bemidji board member Jared Echternach recognized immediately that this was an innovative approach to attracting people to BEC’s service territory. “While many rural areas in our country are experiencing declining population, we are blessed to be a growing regional hub,” he said. “This measured growth strengthens our cooperative and the communities we serve.”
Smitten with Bemidji
The Strandes always imagined their eventual forever home would be on a river or lake, but life events pulled the couple toward the Land of 10,000 of them.
“My mom lives in southern Minnesota, in Austin,” Amy said. “I would come visit, ever since my dad passed away in 2014, once a month. I got very close to Mom. Håkon was a saint to let me fly here almost every month to see my mom.”
When the pandemic hit and remote work became the norm, the Strandes made the decision to permanently relocate to Minnesota to be closer to Amy’s mother. They had criteria for their new home: close to Mom, more than five acres of land, a water view, top-notch internet, airport access, excellent shopping/restaurants, outdoor fun and nice people.
Bemidji hit every item on the list.
As the pair searched for a potential home, their real estate agent urged them to explore the 218 Relocate website. It brought everything they were looking for to the next level.
“The amount of things you get from 218 Relocate is huge, and we’ve already taken advantage of at least over half of the opportunities of the program,” Amy said. She spoke of a fellow empty-nester she met through Community Concierge, a meeting she held with a new Microsoft colleague at the LaunchPad co-working space, and a 218 Relocate social that connected them with other telecommuters and community champions. “And we’ve only lived here for not quite two months.”
The new personal connections were strong. But the strength of their broadband internet and electric service connections had them tickled.
“I mean, fiber right to the house? We had to wait years for that in Redmond [Washington] where we lived, and that was right next to Microsoft campus,” Håkon said.
“You can tell it’s been prioritized here,” Amy added. “It’s been terrific.”
In addition to the Paul Bunyan Communications gigabit internet, the new BEC members enrolled in the co-op’s off-peak heating program, which will provide savings when Minnesota’s famous winters blow through.
Erin Echternach has found it incredibly valuable to be able to tout Bemidji’s reliable, member-owned resources. She ran across one social media thread in particular in which a new resident asked about options for electricity, telecommunications, internet, etc. The comments were eye-opening.
“Most of them are talking about the cooperatives – how involved they are in the community, how supportive they are, how innovative they are, how they give back to their members,” she said. “It’s a super important model for us. We’re actually pretty lucky we have that in our area, to also advertise that co-ops are a piece of what makes Bemidji special.”
“As an electric cooperative we are committed to our communities and Greater Bemidji is committed to our region’s growth and prosperity. We are part and parcel to each other’s mission,” Jared Echternach echoed.
Be it by co-op, culture or connection, the locals of the 218 understand that some of the best life stories are created by folks coming together by the water’s edge.
“Bemidji is amazing, and the people are amazing – really, in northern Minnesota and all of the Midwest,” Håkon said with a smile at his wife. “People here are real. I’m from Norway, so I can stand a little bit on the outside and observe still, after 22 years.”
MAIN IMAGE: New Bemidji residents Amy and Håkon Strande (and Scooter) enjoy a waterside morning from the patio of their home on Little Bass Lake.