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Utilities Commission receives long-range facilities study

Supplies are stacked to ceilings and there's a vehicle in every parking space at the Willmar Municipal Utilities. The Utilities Commission on Monday received an architects' study of space and facility needs. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- An architect's study says the Willmar Municipal Utilities could reduce its office and vehicle and equipment storage space needs and improve efficiency under either one of two reorganizational options.

The space reduction could be accomplished by either constructing a new combined office and service center near downtown, or construct new facilities in the industrial park.

Those options were recommended by GLT Architects of St. Cloud. Their study began a year ago and included visits by architects to the utility's facilities and interviews with employees. The Municipal Utilities Commission received the study for information on Monday. The architects studied operational and energy efficiencies, improved customer services and increased appeal of utility facilities.

Utilities General Manager Bruce Gomm said the draft study lays the foundation for future facility improvements if property along Litchfield Avenue, where utility offices are now located, becomes available. Gomm said his first priority is to proceed with power plant improvements.

Wes Hompe, staff electrical engineer, said Bob Bonawitz, a former commission member and commission president, had the idea for the study.

The study was funded partly by a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The grant also funded the study of burning corn cobs in a power plant co-generation project, and will fund a study of other energy generation.

The utility operates out of two main buildings: the administrative offices at the corner of Litchfield Avenue and Seventh Street Southwest, and the service center located three blocks west at 10th Street and Pacific Avenue Southwest where equipment is stored and utility vehicles are housed.

The study said the utility would actually need 9 percent less space if space needs were reorganized for the most efficient operations. The utility presently uses 41,680 square feet for offices, storage and service center, but would need 37,934 square feet under a reorganization plan. The plan accounts for growth over the next five to 10 years.

David Leapaldt, principal architect with GLT Architects, said it became apparent the most efficient operational model was one where the service building and office building are located close to each other, possibly even in one structure.

Two options emerged: one is a downtown plan that takes advantage of some underused property to provide for a new building that would front on Litchfield Avenue between Eighth and Ninth Streets. Such a building would provide not only better operations but would improve the appearance and image of the utilities and the downtown.

The second option would move the offices and service center to a new site in the industrial park. While this option separates the power plant functions from the office and service center functions, the site would allow for more flexible configuration of the building design, and potentially could be less congested than the near-downtown site.

Leapaldt cited a number of deficiencies within the office building and the service center.

The office building is structurally sound, but has minimal insulation (except for the roof). The main electrical service is undersized, the heating system provides uneven heat distribution, the plumbing fixtures do not provide reduced flow and all equipment has far exceeded its useful life.

The service center building, constructed between 1930 and 1941, is structurally sound, but not well-insulated. The overhead doors are too small for the height of modern utility vehicles, the center has inadequate storage, inefficient lighting and heating systems, and nearly all mechanical equipment has exceeded useful life.

Leapaldt said studies show energy use could be reduced from 17 percent to 34 percent with a better insulated building and more efficient heating and cooling equipment. In addition, a new building would have more natural light and better ventilation and fresher air, which studies show improve employee health and productivity.

Leapaldt said both options would create staff and customer efficiencies that would translate to continued savings. The design of new facilities would include materials that would greatly reduce maintenance costs.

In other business this week, the commission re-elected officers for 2010. They are Doug Lindblad, president; Dave Baker, vice president; Gary Myhre, secretary; and Steve Salzer, treasurer.

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