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Feds rule Willmar's old airport terminal eligible for National Register

The Willmar City Council wants to develop the former airport into an industrial park, a plan that is now delayed following a ruling that says the terminal at the site is historic. Tribune photo by Ron?Adams

WILLMAR -- The keeper of the National Register of Historic Places has ruled the former terminal at the old Willmar airport is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

The ruling favors a determination by the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office that the old hangar/terminal building is eligible for placement on the National Register.

The City Council appealed the state agency's determination to the keeper and the keeper had 45 days to make a ruling.

The question of whether the former hangar is historic has delayed the Federal Aviation Administration's release of the old airport land to the city after the new airport opened in September 2006.

As a result, the city's plans to develop the old airport into an industrial park have been delayed.

After the old airport closed and the new airport opened, the old terminal along with the adjacent parking lot and apron have been used for storage by a steel fabrication business.

Last November, the City Council declared the decades-old terminal to be unsafe with mold and structural problems. Cost estimates to bring the terminal up to code range from $600,000 to $1.3 million.

City Administrator Michael Schmit said he was notified of the keeper's ruling in a phone message on Tuesday afternoon. According to Schmit, the caller said an official letter and explanation of the determination will be forthcoming.

Until city officials receive the explanation, it's too early to determine the city's options, Schmit said.

"I'm disappointed to get this message and that's all it is at this point,'' he said. "We'll have to set up a meeting in the very near future with the State Historic Preservation Office and the FAA and find out what our options are.''

Mayor Frank Yanish said he learned of the determination on Wednesday. He agreed the city should wait until officials receive the letter and see what it says. Yanish said he was "kind of expecting that to happen'' but he was disappointed.

"We've got some other aces in the hole here we're going to try to pull out, but we'll have to see what the letter says,'' Yanish said.

The Tribune was notified of the determination in an e-mail Thursday afternoon from Dr. Turkiya L. Lowe with the Cultural Resources Diversity Internship Program of the National Historic Landmarks Program. The National Register is a program of the National Park Service.

The keeper linked the old terminal to the significance played by the late John L. Rice to development of aviation in Willmar. The city's website states that in 1945, John and Mary Jane Rice came to the Willmar area to develop the airport and start Willmar Air Service.

The e-mail said National Register staff concluded that FAA documentation and a Dec. 22, 2010, letter from the city acknowledging the local significance of Rice "clearly demonstrates the property's significance within the context of Minnesota transportation (aviation) history, as well as the significant role played in the airport's historic development and operation by former airport manager and Willmar Air Service owner John L. Rice.''

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150