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Design Center, city seek public comments to update downtown improvement plan

Roy Stiff, from left, Robert Stiff and Beth Stiff are the operators of Kandi Comp located on Litchfield Avenue in downtown Willmar. Kandi Comp recently relocated its business to the former Kandi Cupboard building. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- When Roy Stiff incorporated his KandiComp digital services company in 2004, he immediately wanted to move downtown.

He got his chance about a year ago when he bought and remodeled the former Kandi Cupboard Food Co-op building and moved earlier this year from Trott Avenue and Seventh Street Southwest to the new location at 412 Litchfield Ave. S.W.

While the downtown may at that time have been a declining retail hub, Stiff said it's still is a very strong business hub. "In downtown you find your insurance people, banks, architects, the hospital, attorneys, and ethnic businesses,'' he said.

Stiff says he and his wife love the Mexican bakery across the street and they frequent Bihi's Restaurant and an African restaurant at the Centre Point Mall. Stiff enjoys the relationships developed downtown and said he's not had a single negative experience since moving downtown nor did he anticipate one.

"I've not experienced parking problems, no racial problems. It's a fun place to be to meet new people. I walk home late at night from work and I never wonder for my safety,'' he said. "Most of our business neighbors and the people who have the apartments upstairs wave at me and I wave back.''

Stiff says it makes no sense to ignore or neglect an existing and powerful business community.

"The potential here for business and for profit for the community and for building good relationships is untapped. I believe KandiComp being in downtown helps downtown's businesses to remain strong and maybe even encourages businesses to relocate in downtown,'' he says.

Those are reasons why Stiff is excited about meetings that the Willmar Design Center and City of Willmar will host next week to gather suggestions from citizens and businesses to discuss downtown improvement ideas.

Stiff says focusing on downtown is the right thing to do.

"That's what I'm hoping. It doesn't have to be the downtown that it used to be,'' he says. "It can be the downtown that it's fully capable of being and that's a very strong business center.''

Downtown improvement goals, such as opening Litchfield Avenue to through traffic, were originally established by the Design Center, a nonprofit organization that grew out of two visits by the Minnesota Design Team in 2005. Distilling suggestions from citizens, the Design Center and its committees and volunteers developed a downtown master concept called the Visioneer.

The Visioneer was adopted by the City Council in 2006. Now, Mayor Frank Yanish has undertaken an initiative to pull the city and Design Center together and update the Visioneer.

"I think the myths of downtown need to be dismissed,'' says Yanish. "Also the fact that the city and Design Center are working together now rather maybe in the past we haven't worked as well together as we should have.''

Design Center Project Coordinator Beverly Dougherty says everyone wants the Visioneer brought up to date. The center's urban planner Adam Arvidson of Minneapolis will present an updated version of the six-year-old Visioneer.

"We're not intending to change the mission. We're just showing where we are with it,'' said Dougherty.

City Administrator Charlene Stevens says having Willmar as a vibrant regional center depends in part on having a vibrant and thriving downtown.

"What the city and Design Center are doing is taking another look at downtown and the plans for downtown,'' says Stevens. "They know the history of the Visioneer and what's been done to date, but the mayor's goal was to engage the public again in the planning process and revise, refresh the plan, get some additional stakeholder input into the plan and from that to revise the existing plan and update that.''

The process will involve meeting with the public, downtown businesses, churches and institutions, and Latino and African business owners to generate ideas. About 30 notices were sent to government, institutional, church and nonprofit entities and about 75 notices were sent to property owners.

The meetings will provide more than one way to engage in the process and anyone is encouraged to attend any meeting.

Based on ideas and suggestions, the city and Design Center will present a draft plan to the Planning Commission, make revisions as necessary, and present the plan to the City Council for adoption in February or March 2012 and become part of the city's comprehensive plan.

The challenges will be looking at the level of city investment, what kind of public investment might spur private investment and the roles of the city, downtown, the Design Center, businesses and stakeholders, according to Stevens.

Planning and Development Director Bruce Peterson hopes the effort results in a series of specific planned elements, activities or projects and directions to deal with various downtown issues. The plan will include an implementation section that hopefully will define the roles and responsibilities of the city, the Design Center and possibly other interested parties for achieving those goals.

"Having a direction isn't any good unless you can assign some responsibilities and actually put it on the ground and make it work,'' he said.

If the council endorses the plan, city officials will begin planning the funding process for the 2013 budget and look at capital spending and infrastructure investment, according to Stevens.

"It can't all be public investment. Private dollars have to be invested as well,'' she said.

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