Willmar’s downtown: A vibrant downtown, with busy, growing businesses
Ten years ago, a newcomer might have thought Willmar’s downtown was going downhill. That may have been the right impression then, but a lot has changed.
Through the work of some ambitious non-profit organizations and a mixture of long-term and new businesses, downtown Willmar is a vibrant, busy place again.
“I think it’s a big success story downtown,” said Beverly Dougherty, director of The Design Center in downtown Willmar and also a business owner downtown. The Design Center is a nonprofit working to revitalize downtown Willmar.
The Willmar Area Multicultural Business Center has worked with many businesses in Willmar’s downtown and in several area counties. The African Development Center, which moved to Willmar in 2011, has done the same. The success rate of new businesses in downtown Willmar is substantially higher than the national average, said WAM-BC director Roberto Valdez.
“I think what we’ve been doing here is working; we’re getting good at it,” he said. “I think the end result is a great thing.”
Willmar’s downtown businesses are growing and adding jobs, he said, and “some of them wouldn’t be here without us.”
In addition to providing business consulting and assistance in writing business plans, WAM-BC can provide micro-loans to businesses and many other services.
An example of the changing face and success of downtown could be the Estrella Bakery on Litchfield Avenue. When the House of Jacobs decided to close its retail store, a Latino man purchased the building and opened the bakery.
“At the end of the day, we don’t have a big building wasting away in the middle of downtown,” Valdez said.
Dougherty credits WAM-BC with helping so many new businesses become established. “They just do phenomenal work in getting people off the ground,” she said.
Dougherty is a native of Willmar who moved back to the city about 10 years ago after 15 years away. She opened her business downtown because “I’ve always been a small community person; I’m not a mall person.”
The Design Center has brought about $3 million in grant funding to the downtown area over the past eight years, Dougherty said. About $2 million have come from state Small Cities grants, the rest from a variety of smaller grants. Much of the grant money has been used to update buildings and bring them up to current building and safety codes. Improvements have included roofs, plumbing, heating, ventilation and other infrastructure needs.
While the improvements may not be outwardly visible, they are important for the businesses, to keep the downtown community healthy, she said.
The Design Center is paying for a new study of downtown parking needs and has committees working on preservation, trail connections with other parts of the city, beautification and housing rehabilitation.
Along with encouraging business, the downtown area hosts a number of events through the year, including the Becker Market, an open air market for local products Thursdays during the summer. A community-owned grocery is in development.
Some of the newer ethnic businesses are particularly impressive, because they have worked hard to get out of debt as soon as they can.
“A lot of them own their buildings, because they paid them off,” she said. “They put everything into it.”
People from other cities are impressed with the vitality and variety of businesses in downtown Willmar, she said, but she acknowledged that some people in the community are not as accepting.
“We just need to be more progressive,” she said, “and I think I can say that, because I grew up here.”
Valdez said he has seen growing acceptance of downtown’s ethnic businesses. He’s seen the owners of long-established downtown businesses shopping in the ethnic shops.
Two surveys conducted in the last year have shown that minority business owners in Willmar are pleased to be in the community and find it a welcoming place.
A study from the University of Minnesota Extension Service was released in December. Along with gauging the feelings of business owners, it offered some recommendations for the future.
The study recommended making English as a Second Language classes more accessible and offering basic business classes. It also encouraged building relationships between minority businesses and local business organizations.
When the study was released, Valdez pointed out that many business owners also own homes in Willmar and are putting down roots.
An African Development Center survey released in September said similar things.
African business owners said they were optimistic about their future and confident their businesses would ultimately succeed in Willmar. Still, the African refugees, primarily from Somalia, face an uphill climb as they learn to navigate in an unfamiliar economy and culture.
Some of the challenges include a lack of education among Somali business owners. The ADC works to help them by offering training and information.
The local office, directed by Yusuf Ahmed, teaches business owners how to network, understand regulations and customs and write business plans. Ahmed talks to adult English classes about financial literacy and also talks to people who stop in his downtown office.
Retail trade is the third largest sector in Kandiyohi County, with 3,013 jobs at 234 establishments.
As consumers across the nation cut back during the Great Recession, many stores responded by cutting back on employment, as retailers eliminated jobs by 7.9 percent statewide from 2007 to 2010.
- In Kandiyohi County, however, retailers cut just 2.2 percent of retail trade employment, losing just 66 jobs over those three years.
- From 2010 to 2011, Kandiyohi County welcomed 13 new retail firms and 38 new covered jobs, a 1.3 percent increase.
- The largest retail sectors in Kandiyohi County include general merchandise stores (13 stores with 736) jobs; food and beverage stores (20 stores with 483 jobs); motor vehicle and parts dealers (42 dealers with 410 jobs); building material and garden supply stores (17 stores with326 jobs); and gasoline stations (27 stores with 261 jobs).