I am responding to Steve Gardner’s letter to the editor, challenging Mayor Frank Yanish’s assertion that “downtown” Willmar has an identity crisis.
The old downtown ceased its role as a social and commercial destination long ago. As in many mature downtowns throughout the country, unable to meet the public’s new taste for strip malls, plentiful free parking, and chain stores, merchants began their exodus, and First Street South was crowned the “new downtown.” The relocation of Highway 12, from a downtown thoroughfare to a bypass around the northern edge, sealed the deal. Old Downtown’s property values declined as buildings became vacant, properties foreclosed, and a void was left behind. New arrivals filled the void. Somali and, to a lesser extent, Latino residents and businesses now dominate the inner core of the neighborhood.
So, the area is no longer a downtown in the conventional sense. It’s a neighborhood, one in transition, one which has become what it is — partly by neglect, partly by default — with no road map and no clear identity.
If Willmar is to see this neighborhood succeed as a purely ethnic enclave — and it’s unclear if that is the consensus — the neighborhood will need a much greater critical mass; higher population density, more capital, more Somali and Latino property owners, more access to credit markets. At this point, in my estimation, the numbers are simply not there.
Are there other options? Of course there are. Discovering them begins with open conversations.
That, friends and neighbors, is the definition of the “identity crisis.”