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Willmar, Minn., downtown revitalization proposal draws favorable comments

Earl and Betty Knutson of Willmar look over the downtown design plan discussed Wednesday night at a public meeting in Willmar. Many expressed support for the plan, and city officials say the reaction so far seems to reflect satisfaction with the proposal. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

WILLMAR -- Local residents appear satisfied with and excited about a proposed plan to redevelop and revitalize downtown Willmar.

The plan was presented at a public meeting Wednesday night.

"I think it's a great plan and I'm excited to support it any way I can,'' said Mitra Engan, whose family lived in Willmar 38 years ago when the downtown was the hub of the city. "There was a real sense of community. It was the heart of the community.''

Engan said she and her husband moved to Willmar five years ago to raise their young family because they appreciate everything the city offers.

"Each of us has lived in several other places in our lives and have really appreciated the places that have a thriving downtown,'' Engan said. "We know what that looks like and feels like. I'm really excited to see that there's real momentum behind bringing that back to Willmar.''

The plan, developed by the city, Willmar Design Center and others during the past five months with comments from a cross-section of citizens and local stakeholders, reflects a growing emphasis on the need for a mix of retail businesses, housing, access and parking, and new thinking about downtown open space.

Warren Hagen, who owns Hagen Orthotics and Prosthetics downtown, said it's great that the city is involved with the downtown and he's looking forward to improvements to occur during the next five to 10 years.

"I'm excited for more green space and trees and around Rice Hospital and down Becker Avenue,'' he said.

City Planning and Development Services Director Bruce Peterson presented the plan to about 45 people at the fire station meeting room. In an interview, Peterson said he thought the general reaction is that the public is satisfied with the plan's contents.

"They think it's an acceptable future direction for the city and the Design Center and (Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission) to move in and working toward downtown redevelopment,'' he said.

"I heard a lot of support for specific elements dealing with business improvements, improvement of conditions downtown, working for design standards, continuing to deal with parking and access issues. All of those things require some thought. But I think with the support of the public, the council's committed to moving forward,'' he said.

The plan was the idea of Mayor Frank Yanish. He said Wednesday's meeting was excellent and he praised Peterson's presentation.

"It's going to happen,'' Yanish said of the plan.

Beverly Dougherty, Design Center project coordinator, said the plan is easy to read and tells who is responsible and accountable for accomplishing the proposed tasks.

The plan does not provide any cost estimates but lists possible funding sources such as grants, loan and tax dollars.

Peterson said the plan will ultimately be presented to the council in the hope it will be adopted as part of the city's comprehensive land use plan.

Jim Dokken, one of a handful of City Council members attending, urged elected leaders to consult their citizens about the level of taxation that they are willing to pay for local programs and services.

"If you think it should be reduced, then you should say that. If you're willing to pay more taxes, you should say that also,'' he said.

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