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Comment being sought on proposal for downtown Willmar, Minn.

According to Planning Commission Chairman Mark Klema, shown here during a meeting Wednesday, people should comment before the plan for downtown Willmar becomes policy. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- Mayor Frank Yanish says a proposed plan has options to help solve downtown's problem:

"The problem being that we have to give people a reason to go downtown and make it easy to get downtown,'' he says.

The plan will be the topic of a public meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the fire station meeting room.

The plan was conceived by Yanish and City Administrator Charlene Stevens, and was prepared by city planning staff Bruce Peterson and Megan Sauer and landscape architect Adam Arvidson of Minneapolis.

The plan would replace the Willmar Design Center's Visioneer, which since 2006 had envisioned reopening both ends of Litchfield Avenue to U.S. Highway 12; establishing a downtown commons; urbanizing First Street; and bringing the Glacial Lakes State Trail downtown.

Over the years, however, those goals were modified and rethought while other initiatives arose as city and Design Center priorities shifted.

In December 2011, the city and Design Center sponsored an open house during which more than 50 participants contributed ideas about downtown improvements. Also, the city gathered suggestions from downtown businesses, downtown institutions, and specifically the Latino community and the Somali community.

The resulting plan reflects a growing emphasis on a mix of retail businesses, housing, access and parking, and new thinking about downtown open space.

Each of the five topic areas in the plan contains multiple elements that explain what is to be accomplished and how it is to be accomplished, who is responsible for leading that particular effort, funding sources, and a discussion of how the element ties into or relates to other elements within the plan. The five topic areas are access, movement and parking; open space, green space and trails; building conditions and aesthetics; business mix and redevelopment; and housing.

Peterson says the plan will help preserve and enhance downtown's commercial tax base.

"The downtown historically served as a huge centralization of tax base. That has eroded over the years. But the downtown is still a very important commercial and governmental and service area and the value of those assets and the value of that tax base needs to be preserved and enhanced,'' he said.

"What we want to do is make sure that people are comfortable moving into and about the downtown, that they've got different options for not only vehicle access but pedestrian access and trail access with the extension of the state trail,'' said Peterson.

"We want to create more open space downtown, have more greenery and deal with some design standards that will provide additional plantings at parking lots and whenever streets are reconstructed, doing some different landscaping in the downtown area,'' he said.

The plan will deal with creating new building maintenance design standards and standards that might apply to development of parking lots and pedestrian use areas.

Also, the plan promotes redevelopment of some downtown properties; maintaining major institutional facilities such as Rice Hospital and governmental office buildings; improving downtown housing; and attracting new business.

"I think it's acknowledged that the downtown is very unlikely to ever regain the retail prominence that it had in the '50s and '60s, but certain things can be done to develop some of the niche retail businesses and to create a niche market downtown,'' said Peterson.

The Planning Commission on April 11 approved and forwarded the plan to the City Council for a public hearing and to adopt the plan as an amendment to the comprehensive land use plan.

Planning Commission Chairman Mark Klema says now is the time for people to comment before the plan becomes policy.

"It's always good to have a plan,'' he said. "We have zoning regulations for the whole city. But I think it's been pretty clear to people for at least starting in early 2000 that the downtown is a little unique and it has some unique requirements and goals that people who live here have for it.''

Rice Hospital is an important downtown anchor business and Mike Schramm, Rice chief executive officer, says the hospital supports the plan.

He says city leadership is important.

"For it to go anywhere, we need that city leadership because a lot of those various objectives within the plan need the city onboard and they're going to fund a number of those infrastructure and city development things,'' he said.

Longtime downtown businesswoman Mary Weimerskirch says the plan is a good idea. She supports the idea of design standards and believes signs and buildings should have a professional appearance.

She remembers the kindly advice of former Mayor Richard Hoglund who urged Weimerskirch to remove the grass growing in the sidewalk in front of her Interior Design Studio and Gallery.

"I think it's real important for the presentation for the people who come into town and for our own town,'' she says.

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