Local effort under way to save Willmar's Lakeland Hotel for future redevelopment
WILLMAR -- In its glory days, the Lakeland Hotel was one of Willmar's premier places to stay.
Built in 1927, the brick structure occupied the heart of downtown Willmar, on the southwest corner of Fourth Street and Litchfield Avenue.
Its 60 rooms were usually full. "That was the place that people got off the train and went to stay," said Bev Dougherty, who has researched the building's past.
But the city's era of stately hotels has long since faded. The Grand, the Lincoln, the Benson -- all have been torn down. And a question mark now hangs over the Lakeland's future as well, after the building was foreclosed on last year.
The Willmar Design Center hopes to save the Lakeland from the fate of the city's other old hotels. In April the paperwork was finalized to start the process of placing the building on the National Register of Historic Places.
Inclusion of the old Lakeland Hotel on the historic register will pave the way for tax credit eligibility -- and make the building an attractive prospect for someone interested in commercial development, said Dougherty, project coordinator for the Design Center.
"We want that building saved. We want to make it enticing for someone," she said. "What the community gets is a beautiful, restored, usable building."
A final draft was recently completed for an application to be submitted to the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office. The state office will decide by the end of June whether to approve the application and forward it to the National Register.
A decision by the National Register will take place by early November, Dougherty said.
The Willmar Design Center is optimistic the application will be successful.
"If we get this, we're going to have a big celebration. I think we have a good chance," Dougherty said.
The Design Center, a private initiative to revitalize Willmar's downtown district, also hopes it will lead to the increased use of tax credits to stimulate restoration and redevelopment of some of the downtown landmark buildings in Willmar as well as other towns in Kandiyohi County, such as New London and Atwater.
Qualifying properties and projects are eligible for tax credits of 40 percent -- 20 percent state and 20 percent federal.
"What we really want for the community is for someone to make an investment," said Richard Engan, principal of the Engan Associates architecture, engineering and interior design firm.
Statewide, more than $750 million has been sunk into historic buildings over the past three decades. Brainerd, for instance, has done more than $7 million worth of federal tax credit projects, according to figures from the State Historic Preservation Office.
Because these projects are usually labor-intensive, they create jobs. They also can boost the local tax base and breathe new life into fading commercial districts.
Engan did just that with his own building, the former home of the West Central Tribune on Fourth Street. The structure was extensively restored and is now on the National Register.
Because the project took place before the building was listed on the National Register, it wasn't eligible for tax credits. But there's an opportunity for other downtown buildings to take advantage of this incentive, Engan said.
"There's a critical mass here," he said. "All the buildings are in place."
Many of Willmar's most prominent historic buildings are concentrated downtown. Most are 80 to 100 years old and were built during an era of cheap labor, when craftsmen could spend years on details such as hand-cut masonry.
Preserving these buildings would help retain an important slice of the city's past, Dougherty said. "The long-range vision of any town is to maintain your history. That's who we are. That's our history."
Although there's also a place for modern architecture, historic reuse has a unique appeal, Engan said. "It's about a sense of place. It isn't just a cookie cutter that is the same from one end of the country to the other. I think we're going to be coming back to looking for a sense of place. People have a craving for that."
Possible reuses for the Lakeland Hotel include professional office space, specialty retail, and a coffee bar, wine bar or restaurant on the ground floor, and middle-income housing on the upper floors, he and Dougherty said.
"The developers are always available," Engan said. "You need somebody who wants to use the space. It won't happen immediately, but financially the tax credit does open the door to something happening."