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EDC gets on board with Becker Avenue streetscape design plan; will provide $10K for the project

WILLMAR -- Operations board members of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission voted Thursday to give $10,000 to the Willmar Design Center for developing a Becker Avenue public commons.

Board members said they believe the project will be an important step in increasing the vitality of downtown Willmar.

"This is the opportunity to connect everything," said Ron Erpelding.

The project calls for designing a streetscape on Becker Avenue that will allow for traffic but also will incorporate trees, landscaping and public plazas for pedestrians and for outdoor activities such as the Becker Market. It will extend the Glacial Lakes Trail into central downtown as well.

It's part of the process of creating a downtown commons -- one of the long-term goals for the downtown district -- where people can gather, said Andrew Arvidson, an urban planner with the Willmar Design Center.

These kinds of public spaces are important to communities, he said.

"Over time more people will feel more comfortable coming downtown," he said. "This starts to become a place like the other places people visit... We really see this as an investment in Willmar and the county as a whole."

A preliminary concept has already been developed. The next step is to hire a consultant to put together a schematic design and a cost estimate, Arvidson said.

The price tag for a consultant is somewhere between $15,000 and $25,000, he said.

The money from the Economic Development Commission will help cover part of this cost. The Design Center is contributing $5,000 of its own, and other organizations will be asked for money as well, Arvidson said.

Although the consensus from EDC board members was to support the project, Chairman Duane Hultgren was concerned about how it fits into the agency's mission of countywide economic development.

"How does that get justification for a county project? We need to answer that," he said.

Steve Renquist, executive director of the Economic Development Commission, said downtown Willmar may have lost its commercial prominence but it's still a social, cultural, governmental and services center.

"You're talking jobs. You're talking tax base. You're talking a fresh start to what was a significant part of this city and frankly the whole county," he said.

Arvidson said the Design Center plans to interview two to four consultants and ask for specific proposals for Becker Avenue. One of them will be selected by the end of May, he said.

The Willmar Design Center will find out this month whether it has received a $1 million state grant to help refurbish the downtown district and develop second-floor housing. In 2013, work is expected to start on extending the Glacial Lakes Trail from Robbins Island Park into downtown Willmar.