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Design Center to host dinner Thursday to reflect on its successes of the past five years

WILLMAR -- Five years ago the Willmar Design Center established its mission to renew the heart of the city.

Now, with many thriving organizations and ideas, the design center looks back at what it has accomplished, and looks forward to its future goals with the nonprofit's annual Bounty of the County fundraising dinner.

Supporters of downtown will gather Thursday along Becker Avenue Southwest for a dinner and live entertainment. The dinner, by Culinary Seasons, begins at 5:30 p.m. with acoustic blues and folk music by "The Strollers" of Montevideo.

"We've done a lot of good things for downtown, and it's needed," said Gary Geiger, Willmar Design Center board member and chairman of the group's Urbanize-Restore Committee. "There are some real opportunities to improve and grow the business climate downtown and I think we need to do that so we can move forward."

The Design Center was first created after the city was visited by the Minnesota Design Team in 2005, with a specialization in helping communities plan their future. The Willmar Design Center was born after various discussions and public meetings.

Geiger recalls about 400 community members participated in the discussions to help rejuvenate the downtown area. Five years later, more than 300 volunteers are still united in the efforts.

Today, the Design Center has 19 advisory board members and directors and five cabinet positions, including President Richard Engan.

Engan pointed to the accomplishments of the three main committees set up in 2005.

The Commons Committee was created to bring the community downtown with various events like the Becker Market and Holidaze, Engan said. The Connection Committee has focused on connecting downtown with the rest of the community by pursuing the bus shelter built on the corner of Becker Avenue and Fourth Street Southwest and working to extend the bike trail to downtown. Engan said the third committee, the Urbanize and Restore Committee, is tasked with the physical look of the downtown area.

"It's all of these things simultaneously," Engan said. "It's not just one thing that makes a difference."

Engan said the downtown atmosphere has been gone for many years across the country, and many people are feeling a sense of nostalgia.

"A lot of people have a feeling that they miss what downtown was," Engan said. "Our role is to create settings to take advantage of the opportunities when they come along. ... And that's what the Design Center is about."

Geiger said ongoing projects include the extension of the bike trails into downtown as well as the implementation of the community-owned grocery, a store for local vendors to sell fresh produce, which is working to establish a location.

But with the five-year celebration fundraiser on Thursday, the main question is whether the Willmar Design Center has fulfilled its mission to renew the heart of the city.

Both Engan and Geiger said it has by leaps and bounds, but there is still work that needs to be done.

"I don't think there has been any question," Engan said. "The goals established in the committees have been consistent."

Geiger said there are always going to be projects.

"We're not done, but we have made a lot of progress," Geiger said. "There are a lot of good things that have happened, but we still need to get a couple of projects through to complete the mission."