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Looking to future of downtown Willmar: City seeks board to lead Main Street program participation

Erica Dischino / TribuneJessica Christensen uses her laptop outside of the Goodness Coffee House on Litchfield Avenue in downtown Willmar Wednesday. Community members aim to restart the city’s participation in the Minnesota Main Street program, which works to preserve the vibrance of downtown historic areas across the state. 1 / 5
Shelby Lindrud / Tribune A group of interested community members gathered at the Goodness Coffee Shop to hear a presentation on the Minnesota Main Street program. Willmar has belonged to the program for several years. The city is trying to revamp its participation, headed by City Planner Sarah Anderson, with a hope to revitalize downtown.2 / 5
Erica Dischino / Tribune Community members aim to restart the city’s participation in the Minnesota Main Street program, which works to preserve the vibrance of downtown historic areas across the state. 3 / 5
Erica Dischino / TribuneA pedestrian walks on Fourth Street in downtown Willmar Wednesday. Community members aim to restart the city’s participation in the Minnesota Main Street program, which works to preserve the vibrance of downtown historic areas across the state. 4 / 5
Shelby Lindrud / Tribune Interested community members gathered Tuesday at the Goodness Coffee Shop in downtown Willmar to hear a presentation on the Minnesota Main Street program. Willmar has belonged to the program for several years, and the city is trying to revamp its participation, headed by City Planner Sarah Anderson.5 / 5

WILLMAR — A movement has started in Willmar to restart the city's participation in Minnesota Main Street, a program led by the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota to keep historic downtowns across the state vibrant and serving as an economic hub for their communities.

"We are revamping and getting the community back together and excited about downtown," said Willmar City Planner Sarah Anderson, who is leading the Willmar Main Street program.

The Willmar City Council earlier this year approved paying the dues to continue being part of the organization.

Anderson spoke Tuesday at the Goodness Coffee Shop in front of a group of people interested in the Main Street program, including local elected officials and members of the business community along with city residents.

She also put out the call for people who want to have a front seat in the program to contact her at the city offices. One of the first steps the city needs to do is form a board to lead the city through the processes.

"That is a major thing we need still," Anderson said.

She is looking for a diverse board comprised of people interested in seeing an active and busy downtown Willmar.

"You need people to say 'this is our community and we want to be in downtown,'" Anderson said. "The big thing is, we need interaction."

The state Main Street Program is an offshoot of the national program, Main Street America. In Minnesota there are several designated Main Street cities including Mankato, New Ulm, Red Wing and Northfield. There are also several communities involved at a lower level including Granite Falls, Litchfield and Sleepy Eye.

"Each program plays out differently locally. We are the vision; we get to make it what we want it to be. We get to be excited about it and make it happen," Anderson said.

As part of Main Street, Willmar can take advantage of many services, trainings and grant opportunities to help create programs and events in the downtown business district to help it continue to grow and prosper.

According to the Minnesota Main Street website, in 2017 there was $13 million of public and private financial investment in local programs, and there were improvements to 123 properties, 32 net new businesses and 229 net new jobs. For every $1 spent to run a local Main Street program, $23.77 was reinvested back into the community.

Willmar City Administrator Ike Holland has seen firsthand the success cities can have when they are part of a Main Street program. He came from Chillicothe, Missouri, which in 2016 was a semifinalist for the Great American Main Street Award from the national organization. It is a semi-finalist in 2018 as well.

He said there are many ways to improve Willmar's downtown, as long as there is community buy-in, and not just the monetary kind.

"It isn't about the money, because it won't be the money that develops the downtown. It will take the people in this room, energy, ideas and motivation to do it," Holland said. "If we want to preserve downtown, there are ways to do it without costing you an arm and a leg, and there are ways to attract more people down here."

Anderson and Holland said the hope is to have the Main Street board formed by this fall, so it can go out and begin looking for partners. It will be the community's decision, however, on whether Willmar's downtown continues into the future as a prosperous and vibrant area.

"At the end of the day, we have to look at do we want to preserve the historical buildings down here? If we do, then we have to act," Holland said. "If we don't act, they will eventually go away and we won't have a downtown."

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