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Design Center board hears fundraising tips to help make projects for downtown a reality

WILLMAR -- Willmar Design Center board members and volunteers received some tips on fundraising for downtown improvement projects.

Paul DeGeest, development director for the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation and its affiliated Saint Paul Design Center, said corporations and nonprofit foundations have provided money for St. Paul projects and the center's continuing operations.

"Things don't get done without funding. There is no free lunch,'' DeGeest said. "Government funding is limited. It is tough to sell government to fund anything.''

Willmar Design Center staff asked DeGeest to help local board members and volunteers think about different ways in which they can secure the funding needed to carry out their mission.

The Willmar center is promoting four project ideas: open Litchfield Avenue; create a public plaza; urbanize First Street; and make a connection to the lakes and trails, said Tom Ososki, Willmar center urban designer.

The Willmar Design Center was established in 2005 and formulated the goals using improvement ideas suggested by the public during two meetings with the Minnesota Design Center.

DeGeest provided examples Thursday based on his experience with the 15-year-old Riverfront Corporation and its 10-year-old design center.

Riverfront is a private, nonprofit organization promoting downtown development based on the "Saint Paul on the Mississippi Development Framework.''

The center supports development, "but development in a certain way,'' in collaboration with the city.

The center is concerned with what the downtown will look like 50 years from now, he said.

"It forces people to make more thoughtful, long-term decisions,'' he said.

One of the corporation's projects was redevelopment of Harriet Island from a flood prone residential area to a regional park. The $4.5 million project was paid for with public money and private donations. Another project was development of a downtown green space called Landmark Plaza, which links St. Paul's Rice Park to the downtown.

DeGeest said design centers are crucial "not only for what they do specifically and individually for each city or municipality in which they operate, but I think they're important as an idea or as a concept because a design center is sort of an embodiment of a city or a geographic area's understanding of its own history and its potential.''

In an interview, DeGeest said design centers bring disparate groups together to work for a beneficial outcome.

He praised Willmar for having a design center.

"The willingness of the city leadership of Willmar to even have such a design center, let alone one that's as well developed as it is, I think speaks volumes about the sense of civic responsibility and the seriousness with which the leaders of Willmar take their role in that process,'' he said.

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