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Connie Halvorson, a member of the Hotel Atwater committee, looks at drawings prepared by Engan Associates that show how the 1904-era building would look after renovation. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

Decision expected in April on renovation of Hotel Atwater

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news Willmar, 56201
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

ATWATER -- A virtual walk-through of what the historic Hotel Atwater could look like after $632,000 worth of renovations shows how the town's library, city office and police department could fit into the first floor of the gutted, three-story building.

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While retaining the stately architecture of the 1904 construction, the layout melds modern touches into the plan to meet current and future needs of the town.

But whether the plan -- which is almost two years in the making and has garnered $130,000 in grant money from the Minnesota Historical Society -- proceeds is still an unanswered question.

Atwater Mayor Bruce Baker said the earliest the council will vote is April. "It's going to come down to the money issue."

Baker told about 50 residents Wednesday during a community meeting that it would be OK with him if taxpayers wanted to vote on the issue in a citywide election.

Doing that would take time, however, and there's already concern the Historical Society could renege on the two grants it's already awarded if the city doesn't start working on the building soon.

Committee members for the project who met Wednesday afternoon with state architect Natasha Wiener said the Historical Society is highly supportive of the hotel project and would likely provide even more funding once renovations are under way.

"They love our project," Roger Holm said in relating that Wiener called the Hotel Atwater a "wow" project that could easily be in line for additional phased-in matching grants.

"This is one of their premier projects," said Holm.

But without some sign of progress, the city won't get another grant, said Richard Engan, from Engan Associates, who drew up the plans. "You have to take some action."

If the project is pursued, Baker said work would be done in phases to utilize grant money that identified specific work, like the $90,000 grant the city received for repairing the roof, windows and tuckpointing masonry walls.

Another grant is tied to electrical and mechanical work.

The city must first spend an equal amount of its own money before it receives the grant money.

Depending on when additional grants are obtained, Baker said it could take 10 years for the work to be done before the city could move in.

Holm said Wiener has also encouraged the city to apply for a Legacy grant, funded by the new sales tax, which could reduce local costs by another $150,000 and escalate the pace.

A Legacy grant, which does not require a local match, "could change the time table significantly," said Baker.

While some residents said the revitalized hotel would provide a centerpiece for the town and could encourage additional renovations and new businesses coming to town, others were skeptical.

Brad Fluck said there are "lots of maybes and lots of ifs" with potential funding. He said other options should have been explored, like expanding the current city offices that are housed in the town's old train depot or building a new facility.

In 2005, residents defeated a proposal to build a new city hall.

Moving to the hotel will not increase the size of the office space for the entities, but it will put all three in one location and eliminate rental payments for the current library.

There were also questions about potential surprises when renovating a 106-year-old building.

Because the structure was gutted and the plaster removed, it's easy to see the faults and strengths of the structure, said Engan. The biggest challenge is that load-bearing walls don't line up from floor to floor, which will require some "shoring up."

If a sprinkler system is required, the cost will increase another $36,000. Engan said the city's building inspector is willing to accept a plan without a sprinkler system.

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