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Willmar, Minn., council sets hearing date for downtown plan

Selvig International Park, near the intersection of Becker Avenue and Fourth Street Southeast, is an example of downtown green space, one of the five topic areas in Willmar officials' plan to make the area a destination. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council voted Monday to hold a public hearing May 21 on an ordinance to adopt a proposed downtown plan. The hearing was recommended by the council's Community Development Committee.

During the committee's April 26 meeting, Chairman Jim Dokken read a letter he had sent to City Administrator Charlene Stevens expressing concern over downtown plan elements and funding. He said the plan was good but should not be a priority when compared to other matters.

He offered the opinion that public dollars should only be spent for public purposes and he was not convinced that downtown development had a public purpose.

The plan was conceived by Mayor Frank Yanish and City Administrator Charlene Stevens, and was prepared by city planning staff Bruce Peterson and Megan Sauer and landscape architect Adam Arvidson of Minneapolis after they received comments gathered during public input meetings last December and considering improvements proposed during the past several years by the Willmar Design Center.

The plan identifies the city as the "champion'' for possible central business district capital improvements between 2013 and 2017. The committee was reminded by city staff that many plan elements do not require city capital dollars; that the plan doesn't rely solely on public financing; and that the private sector plays a major part in accomplishing plan elements.

Council member Denis Anderson said the plan is a good start toward preserving past downtown investment. Council member Bruce DeBlieck said the plan is a good way to promote public investment, and that downtown redevelopment is a public purpose. Council member Ron Christianson said much of the public expenditures are for public infrastructure, which supports private development.

The plan features 19 elements organized into five topics:

- Access, movement and parking: establish downtown gateways and improve vehicular access; improve pedestrian environment and connections; perform downtown parking study; and implement the Becker Avenue multiple-use roadway plan.

- Open space, green space and trails: implement Becker Avenue green space and trails; extend Glacial Lakes State Trail into downtown; create downtown trail head at Selvig Park; and improve the urban forest.

- Building conditions and aesthetics: adopt downtown design standards; facilitate façade improvements; encourage historic preservation and restoration; update and improve lighting.

- Business mix and redevelopment: revise the central business district zoning boundary; encourage redevelopment of targeted sites; encourage restaurant and retail development; and support and maintain cultural, governmental and institutional uses downtown.

- Housing: analyze existing downtown housing; promote higher density development at the fringe of the central business district; and increase and improve downtown housing.

Before the start of the regular 7 p.m. meeting, the council met in closed session at 6 p.m. to conduct a performance evaluation of Stevens. The council approved an employment agreement with Stevens on May 27, 2011.

State law allows a public body to close a meeting to evaluate the performance of an individual who is subject to its authority. The public body shall identify the individual to be evaluated prior to closing a meeting.

At its next open meeting, the public body is required to summarize its conclusions regarding the evaluation. A meeting must be open at the request of the individual who is the subject of the meeting, according to state law.

Steve Ahmann, chairman of the council's Labor Relations Committee, said at the start of the open session that the council met for about an hour with Stevens to review her performance. Ahmann said Stevens overall performance has been meeting and exceeding all expectations.

He said some direction was given and there was good communication among everyone. Ahmann said he appreciated input from council members and Yanish. Ahmann said a summary of the actions reported will be given at the next Labor Relations Committee meeting.

Also during the regular meeting, the council:

- Received a report on the city's final water management plan from Barr Engineering. In September 2009, the city retained Barr Engineering to prepare the first phase of updating the city's water management plan, performing water quality and water quantity modeling. In January 2010, the city asked Barr to begin further phases and entered into an agreement for the additional tasks.

- Approved plans and specifications and authorized staff to advertise for bids for construction of the western interceptor sewer project, which will serve the western and northwestern areas of the city where current sewer lines are at capacity.

- Set June 4 as the date for the assessment hearing to pay for the 2012 street improvement program.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150