Jun 15, 2023 | By: Mary Balstad

Proposed Site for Beltrami Co. Jail Causes Citizen Concerns, County Looks to Clarify

With the task of building a new jail for Beltrami County, one question now is where the facility will be located. But area residents have voiced their disapproval over the county board’s choice. Some are speaking up over the perceived lack of transparency as well as concerns and questions about how the jail could affect the area if placed at the proposed location.

The decision was made on May 31 in a unanimous decision by the county board to purchase the Wiebolt Property located near Highway 2 and Jefferson Avenue. Less than a week later, the public crowded the county board room to voice their opposition to the purchase.

“I have questions about how sites landed on that list,” explained Alyssa Carlson, a resident who lives near the proposed jail site. “So who ultimately determined which 15 sites would be scored?”

“[My neighbors] were calling to question how the grading system actually worked out and whether or not it was done justly and fairly,” said Christian Breczinski, another local resident.

The search started in February of 2023 through a committee made up of county staff, commissioners, experts, and citizens. The committee then ranked sites through a 12-point system.

“This jail has to be built in the county seat … which is Bemidji. So, we were able to get through a number of different entities,” explained Beltrami County Sheriff Jason Riggs. “The available properties are properties that would be suited to fit a 96,000-square-foot facility.”

The roughly 17-acre property was chosen after meeting the requirements of the selection committee. However, something people say the committee did not include in the criteria were their citizen concerns.

“I think about inmates as they are discharging from that facility who may not have the transportation or a ride and how they would be connected to resources that may be better served in the city itself,” said Carlson.

Sheriff Riggs said to Lakeland News there can be a policy in place to release people only from the Law Enforcement Center located in downtown Bemidji.

Other concerns include how Bemidji would be seen by cars passing by the area on the highway. The county is working with the contracted architect, Klein McCarthy, to ensure the finished product would look like a commercial building on the outside.

“It’s not going to have barbed wire, concertina wire fences. It’s not going to have guard towers,” said Sheriff Riggs.

Another aspect of the jail that caught the public’s attention was the cost. Some citizens say the county is purchasing the land at five times its value. The county is set to buy the lot at $540,000.

“Yes, we paid a premium on the property itself, but it’s fairly close to ready-to-go,” explained Riggs.

“We need to really carefully and thoughtfully weigh where this goes, because it isn’t just a now moment,” said Carlson. “It isn’t just our neighborhood or whichever neighborhood that this may go into or whether it’s an industrial area or a commercial area. So we really need to be thoughtful in the long-term planning for the community of Bemidji.”

Sheriff Riggs says that traffic is not expected to increase drastically if the jail is placed at the property. Citizens are still concerned over the safety of pedestrians due to lack of sidewalks in the area.

There will be a public input session on June 20 at the next Beltrami County Board of Commissioners meeting. The session is expected to start at 5 p.m., and citizens are encouraged to participate.

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