WILLMAR -- Candidates running for the Willmar City Council in the Nov. 4 general election responded to questions on downtown-related issues at an open forum sponsored by the Willmar Design Center Monday night.
Attending the forum at Northern Grounds Coffee Shop were incumbent council members Steve Gardner and challenger Tim Johnson in the Ward 2 race; former council Steve Ahmann who is running unopposed for the Ward 3 seat; and incumbent Jim Dokken and challenger Susana Hunnicutt who are running for the Ward 4 seat.
Council member Denis Anderson, who is unopposed in Ward 1, was unable to attend.
Design Center President Paul Mikkelson asked the candidates for their opinion on opening access to downtown on the east and west ends of Litchfield Avenue.
Hunnicutt said the idea was good, but she wanted a bypass for truck traffic.
Gardner said opening Litchfield Avenue is being studied by the Public Works Department and is essential for downtown's heath and vitality.
Johnson favored opening Litchfield Avenue and making downtown more accessible. He said access to downtown now is especially confusing for people who are not from Willmar or infrequently come downtown.
He said the city should be careful about relocating certain community assets, such as the courthouse, out of downtown. Moving the courthouse would remove employees who frequent the downtown during breaks and errands, he said
Dokken strongly supports opening access to downtown, but said his concern is with the design and how vehicles get in and out of downtown.
Ahmann said the issue is not new. He said city redevelopment in the 1970s tore down many old buildings and changed the downtown dynamics, which everyone thought would be for the better. Ahmann said he sees no problem with opening the downtown area to make it more accessible.
Mikkelson asked if the city should participate in a Design Center proposal to redesign Becker Avenue to include a bike path and areas for community events and establish the Glacial Lakes Trail Head at Selvig Park.
Gardner said he supports the idea of bringing the trail head downtown as part of the city's responsibility to create new bike trails. He said the city needs to be proactive in building the downtown as a destination.
Johnson said he favors the bike trail as a way to bring people in, and more people are riding their bikes as gas prices rise. If downtown has more things to draw people downtown, they'll ride their bikes downtown, Johnson said, adding he'd like to see more bike paths coming into the city.
Dokken agreed, but said he's concerned how to pay for it and said funding sustainable is needed to take care of it. He encouraged the Design Center to list its most important items for the council to consider.
Ahmann said he supports a bike path into downtown and other areas. He said coming up with the ideas is exciting, but the biggest problem is funding.
Hunnicutt said she liked the bike trail concept because it will add more people coming downtown.
Among other questions, Mikkelson asked the candidates how the community can remove the stigma that downtown is "crime-ridden.''
Dokken said he reserved his comments until he sees statistics that demonstrate what Mikkelson said is true.
Ahmann said he was not aware of any discussion or statistics on downtown crime.
"If we can get more people down here to see the positive changes, that's going to maybe put the fire out on people's thoughts about what crime is downtown,'' Ahmann said.
Hunnicutt said she enjoys spending time downtown and said she's not seen or heard any statistics about crime downtown.
Gardner said much of the perception does not match up with reality, and said the perception is based partly out of ignorance. He said police statistics show that Willmar has one of the lowest crime rates of any of the state's 18 regional centers.
Johnson said there is a perception, but it's not the reality, and said the perception is causing the community some difficulties. Johnson said he doesn't know the cause, but said the perception needs to be addressed.