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EDC reaffirms downtown parking study need

WILLMAR -- There's been little movement forward on a proposal to study future parking needs in downtown Willmar, but the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission remains supportive of the idea.

The EDC also is prepared to consider sharing the cost if and when the study is approved. Bringing in a consultant to undertake the assessment is estimated at around $30,000.

Steve Renquist, executive director of the Economic Development Commission, reaffirmed a commitment Thursday to assist the central business district in addressing its future parking needs.

"We feel business can be created, jobs can be created and the tax base can be enhanced," Renquist told members of the EDC joint operations board Thursday.

The proposed study would take a long-range look at the downtown district, the types of development that might happen and how future development could affect parking needs. More niche businesses downtown, for example, might require more long-term parking for employees. If downtown housing is developed, it could create a need for places for these residents to park.

The study is meant to assess future rather than current needs, Renquist said.

"We understand that the downtown as it is now may not need additional parking," he said.

Ron Erpelding, chairman of the joint operating board, said it's important to be ready for what the future might bring.

"Right now there might be ample parking but things change," he said. "When the good times come, you want to be ready to roll."

The study is backed by the nonprofit Willmar Design Center, which is working to revitalize the downtown district. Rice Memorial Hospital also has said it's willing to fund half the cost if the study goes forward.

It's not clear where the Willmar City Council, which has the final say, stands on the issue. The council talked about the parking study at its most recent meeting, on Aug. 1, but took no action. The topic will be on the agenda of the council's Community Development Committee later this month.

Earlier this summer the council went on record in opposition to spending any public money on a feasibility study for a downtown parking ramp.

But organizers, whose initial proposal was for a parking ramp study, have backed away from this and are seeking instead a study of parking needs in general.

Renquist said it was "just an assessment" at this point. He added that there are at least half a dozen consultants who would likely be interested in doing the study.

There's a need to think long-term about planning and land use, said Bruce Peterson, development director for the city of Willmar.

The city has long had its eye on Block 47, which runs along First Street between Becker and Trott avenues and is currently being used for parking by Rice Hospital employees, he said. "Their using that property as a parking lot is not the best use of that property."

If the block some day is converted to commercial development, though, the city-owned hospital would be under considerable pressure to replace that parking, Peterson said.

"That definitely is going to be a driving force," he said.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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