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Peterson optimistic about economic development

Total construction valuation last year exceeded $70 million -- the largest figure in the city's history -- due mainly to the construction permit for the new wastewater treatment plant project. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)

WILLMAR -- Bruce Peterson says he and his staff in the city's Department of Planning and Development Services do not buy into a doom and gloom philosophy regarding the current economic downturn. Peterson says many good things are happening.

"There's a lot of local employment that remains strong. We're seeing a strong local economy. Builders are building and we're seeing interest by contractors and developers in new projects,'' says Peterson, director of planning and development services.

"Willmar and Kandiyohi County have always survived. We will survive and we'll emerge from this economic situation stronger than we were before,'' he said.

Peterson's remarks prefaced his recent report to the Willmar City Council on local economic and community development activities overseen by his department in 2008.

Total construction valuation last year exceeded $70 million -- the largest figure in the city's history -- due mainly to the construction permit for the new wastewater treatment plant project.

The department issued 780 building permits, the most during the past 10 years. Commercial and industrial values at $60,879,956 were up over 2007 numbers and the highest during the 10-year period.

However, residential construction at 24 units, of which 19 were single-family residences, was the lowest during the past 10 years and declined 20 percent in 2008 compared with 27 total units in 2007. The decline mainly affected new construction.

"It's still not bad given the national averages that are compiled and reported to us from McGraw Hill Construction Surveys,'' Peterson said. "Our additions and alterations permits remained high at 326 though even this was a decrease of 25 percent from 2007.''

He said the housing market is feeling the effects of the economy, job losses and foreclosures. A significant number of residential lots are available for construction, but many are platted for twin-home construction and are not suitable for single-family housing. But demand is good for affordable and moderately priced homes, he said.

Westwind Estates Third Addition, a housing project for low and moderate income residents, was approved in 2008 and will consist of 28 units. Construction is slated to begin this spring.

Peterson said maintenance issues continue to be addressed in the residential neighborhoods. He said the city will need to take a harder line, which could include orders for removal or demolition.

Significant 2008 projects were the wastewater treatment project, Rice Memorial Hospital data center, Vinje Lutheran Church addition, new Walgreens and Slumberland buildings, Central MN Fabrication expansion, MinnWest Technology Campus projects, Kandi Mall remodeling, Pan-O-Gold distribution center and the Donnerite Trucking expansion.

Peterson said updating continued on the comprehensive land use plan. The Planning Commission invested significant time in reviewing the document. He said preparation of a final draft is nearing completion. The process has taken longer than anticipated because a deliberate process is required to ensure the needs of the community are meet, Peterson explained.

Also, he said Mid-Minnesota Development Commission, which the city engaged to package the plan, has encountered some delays by their staff in providing assistance anticipated by the city. He hopes the plan will be completed soon for required public review and adoption.

"Even through the process has been lengthy, the plan should prove to be a functional guide for future city growth and development for years to come,'' he said.

Peterson said the MinnWest Technology Campus continues to be a bright spot in the local economy. At the end of 2008, the campus had at least 17 companies with over 280 employees. He said the city, the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission and MinnWest continue to market the campus.

In 2008, the city received a $1 million state grant to create the Mid Central Bio-Sciences Center at the campus.

"We're excited about the bio-sciences center. It's a great opportunity for University of Minnesota staff and graduate students to partner with local businesses to bring bio-technology and bio-science to the marketplace," said Peterson. "It has the potential to establish Willmar as a major bio-technology hub in the upper Midwest.''

Peterson said employment in Willmar and Kandiyohi County remained positive in 2008 and major layoffs have been avoided. Many businesses are weathering the economic slowdown by maintaining -- and in some cases -- adding employees.

In Willmar's role as a regional center, it's expected to pick up the employment and economic "slack'' for a large geographic area, he said.