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Supporters of Westwind proposal have their say at City Council meeting

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WILLMAR -- Supporters of the embattled Westwind Estates housing project had their say at Monday night's Willmar City Council meeting.

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Housing project supporters and opponents on the eight-member council are evenly split. So far, street construction for the 34-unit development of mostly low-income twin homes has been blocked and the council has rejected a $350,000 state grant awarded to the city for the nearly $7 million housing development.

Maria Diaz, the local coordinator for the Raíces Project, was among more than a dozen people who attended the meeting to show their support for the development proposed by Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership.

"I was shocked to hear the division on this issue because I find it kind of odd not to want to improve our city,'' said Diaz during the open forum, when the council listens to citizens. "I find this is a way of improving our city.''

Diaz said she was bothered by a council member's comments comparing Westwind to the former Elm Lane trailer park, and other trailer parks. The former Elm Lane on U.S. Highway 12 East was known mainly for crime, violence and squalor.

Diaz was referring to a comment made at the March 31 special council meeting by council member Ron Christianson, who said, "Long term, we could have another Regency Southwest or Elm Lane. We went through that. We know what goes on.''

Diaz said she thought the comment was disrespectful to people who live in trailer parks and reflected a lack of understanding of the project. Diaz said she was aware of the design of the homes, the cost and the planning to provide decent, fair housing to people.

"I perceive some council members really don't want minority people living in those houses,'' she said. "I cannot assure you that all those houses will not be occupied by any of us Latinos or Somalis because this is a project that is mainly for people that cannot afford a regular house or paying a mortgage of a high rate,'' she said.

"I don't think all poor people are Latinos or Somalis. Willmar has a poverty level that includes a lot of other cultures. That is my sense. It is fair housing, and housing is one of the basic needs for all,'' she said.

Diaz, who has lived in Willmar for 15 years, said she lived in Mobile Estates for three years to save enough money to buy a house.

"When people move into mobile homes, they are just looking for a step to save up,'' she said. "I don't appreciate when people talk bad about the mobile homes, because not everybody who lives there are bad people.''

Rafael Torres of Willmar said every group has good people and bad people, and he spoke in favor of helping others who come here.

Luz Gonzalez said she supports fair housing, which she called a basic need.

Fernando Alvarado praised Mayor Les Heitke for his efforts in building community. Alvarado said Willmar is a global community.

"We have to figure it out,'' he said. "We have to open our hearts and minds and accept other people.''

Christianson attempted to speak, but Heitke refused to let him.

Later in the meeting, the council voted to reject the $350,000 state Department of Employment and Economic Development grant for Westwind.

Christianson said the partnership circumvented the council to obtain the grant.

In an interview Tuesday, Rick Goodemann, partnership executive director, said Christianson's assertion was "absolutely false.''

Goodemann explained that DEED's announcement last week that the grant was authorized was based on action taken by the council in late February to approve the grant application. At that meeting, the grant application was approved when Heitke broke a 3-3 tie vote.

Goodemann said he brought the application back to the council after the council voted against the application last summer.

"We brought it back to the council and the council did approve the resolution and did approve the funding. That's how DEED decided to award the money,'' said Goodemann.

The money was planned for construction. But if the council's Monday night decision stands, the partnership will not receive the grant, he said.

When asked how that will affect the project, Goodemann said, "In the scheme of things, this is rather a small problem.'' He thought opponents would continue to pressure the four council members who oppose the project to walk out of the meeting.

Goodemann assumed that if the full council voted, the grant would be reinstated with the mayor breaking the tie vote in favor. That's what happened when the council approved the grant in February, according to Goodemann.

On the street issue, Goodemann said the council's action has hamstrung the project, "which is their intent.'' When asked if the partnership was contemplating legal action to force the city to build the street, he said, "I'm sure you'll find out one way or the other.''

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