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Council endorses major redesign of downtown Becker Ave.

Traffic is seen at the intersection of Fifth Street Southwest and Becker Avenue Southwest. The City Council has endorsed a redesign of Becker Avenue that could change the entire landscape of Willmar's downtown area. Tribune photos by Gary Miller

Promoters of a Becker Avenue re-design say the concept of bringing a recreational trail and developing a plaza and park area for outdoor markets will create an appealing entrée to the downtown district.

"From an esthetic standpoint, the intent is not to create the primary gateway to downtown but to create an appealing entrée to the downtown district out of the investment of this trail,'' said Bruce Chamberlain, vice president of Hoisington Koegler Group Inc., a land planning and design firm in Minneapolis.

"What you are creating is the seed of change in downtown and the benefactor will be the district. You're creating a whole different mindset of how people view downtown Willmar.

This is the first investment in that effort, and make other investments on Litchfield (Avenue) in conjunction with it. The investment you make in the public realm is an investment in the district.''

Chamberlain explained the proposal to council members before they voted 5-2 Monday night to endorse the concept. Council members voting in favor were Steve Ahmann, Denis Anderson, Bruce DeBlieck, Rick Fagerlie and Jim Dokken. Voting against were Doug Reese and Ron Christianson. Tim Johnson was absent.

Without endorsement, say representatives of the Willmar Design Center, which is promoting the redesign, obtaining grants or state or federal funding for the $3.3 million concept would be nearly impossible.

"What's important is we need to show some level of support for this in order for them to look for additional money,'' said Anderson. "That's the only way we're going to find out if there are funds available so we don't have to fund the full $3 million. If we don't approve this, we've stopped everything.''

Council endorsement doesn't mean the project will be built right away. Chamberlain said development of schematic designs is one stage in the process leading to implementation. He said it's likely plans and visions will change as implementation nears.

Last year, the council authorized the Becker Avenue study, and the city along with the Design Center raised funds to contract with Hoisington to prepare sketches and cost estimates for redesigning Becker Avenue as Willmar's downtown market street from First to Sixth.

The market street idea grew out of community improvement suggestions made during visits to Willmar by the Minnesota Design Team in 2005. The Design Center was formed as a result of the visits. The center sponsors the summer-time Becker Market and is working to implement various community improvement goals such as the Becker Avenue redesign.

The concept envisions creating a one-block market plaza that would also function as a street, development of a new central park and mid-block promenade connecting Fourth and Fifth streets, special pavement patterns, the planting of more trees, and a combination walking and biking trail bringing the Glacial Lakes State Trail head downtown.

Reese said he had difficulty designating Becker Avenue and street segments as the market area. He said the council, during a retreat, targeted a market area on Fourth Street between Benson and Litchfield avenues. "We saw that as a good possibility,'' he said. He also felt that Litchfield Avenue had many more businesses than Becker.

"I am looking at overall enhancement of downtown and getting more businesses and people coming downtown,'' Reese said. He suggested the effort circle the block bordered by Becker, Fourth, Litchfield and Fifth, which would provide more business and enhancement opportunities.

Chamberlain said the council must decide where public enhancements or investments make the most sense.

He said Becker seemed the best place for bringing the trail from First Street to Selvig Park and connecting to the KAT transit station. He said the community group that looked at alternatives said Becker Avenue made the most sense for a market venue.

"The market can draw people downtown that wouldn't otherwise come downtown,'' he said. "If you can create a experience for people arriving at Becker Market and use Fourth to connect the market and Litchfield, that's a great thing. On Litchfield, the best use of investment would be to enhance store fronts and open up Highway 12.''

DeBlieck said the plan "could be a star for the community.'' His concern was the cost of long-term maintenance.

Chamberlain estimated the annual maintenance cost, based on other city projects, at about $80,000. A special taxing district could be formed to pay for it, he said.

Ahmann said the overall concept, while not perfect, was fantastic, and said he's willing to keep working on it.

Fagerlie said he supported it because a plan is needed to get funding and grants, and not just from local sources.

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