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Council discussion gets personal

Willmar City Council member Steven Ahmann. Tribune file photos1 / 2
Willmar City Council member Rick Fagerlie. Tribune file photos2 / 2

WILLMAR — Discussion got personal this week between two City Council members over a tax abatement request for a hotel and conference center renovation project being proposed in their ward.

The discussion Monday night by Ward 3 councilmen Steve Ahmann and Rick Fagerlie, along with other council members, centered on Torgerson Properties’ request for a 10-year property tax abatement after bids came in totaling nearly $11 million — $3 million over budget for the Highway 12 East project. (See related story).

The discussion took place after Fagerlie reported that the Community Development Committee, which he chairs, recommended preliminary approval of abatement and setting April 15 for a public hearing to consider the request.

The council ultimately approved setting the hearing for April 15.

Ahmann had some praise for the project but also raised several concerns about the benefits to the city and about the lack of a city policy on granting tax abatement.

At one point in the discussion, Fagerlie said, “it appears someone has a chip on their shoulder ... ’’

Ahmann requested Fagerlie to explain his comment. Fagerlie did not.

And the mayor ultimately cut off discussion.

Torgerson Properties has said the project slated to begin this spring at the Holiday Inn/Comfort Inn complex will add 30 jobs. It will increase the number of hotel rooms, add a second restaurant and redo the conference center.

The Comfort Inn will be rebranded as Holiday Inn Express and the current Holiday Inn will be rebranded to a Best Western Plus.

Ahmann praised the project, but lamented what he said was the lack of policy and criteria for measuring the economic benefit that supporters say the city will gain from granting the tax break. He asked how the abatement will be made up by other taxpayers.

Also, Ahmann criticized city staff for not preparing a policy that he requested after the council narrowly approved a tax abatement request for the Lakeland Hotel redevelopment project last June.

Ahmann voted against that project, which never took place, however, due to financial difficulties.

“I do not want to sound negative or against growth, which I’m not. I’m pro-growth,’’ he said. “It’s at what expense are we going to incur this and how are we going to make up for the losses?’’

Ahmann asked what the incentives are.

“We’re getting part-time jobs, maybe a few additional jobs. We have no guarantee the jobs create any kind of benefits, which means that the employees that they do hire would all be eligible for social assistance programs, which is going to add to the tax rolls of the citizens in the community again,’’ he said.

Ahmann also questioned why the abatement, granted for industrial projects, was not given to other businesses like the Viking Hotel, which he said is being renovated, and asked what’s Torgerson’s financial ability to absorb the increased cost or scale back the project.

“The only thing I’ve seen is the bids came in over budget,’’ said Ahmann, a home builder. “If people build a house and you come in over budget, you cut back on it if you want the house. … At what point do we say no? You can scale back on this project, do it incrementally, budget appropriately.’’

The council approved the recommendation by the Community Development Committee, which Fagerlie chairs, to set April 15 as the date for a hearing to consider the abatement, but dropped a recommendation to give the abatement preliminary approval.

After the vote, Fagerlie reported that the committee had discussed a request by Ahmann to develop a tax abatement policy.

Fagerlie said staff will draft a broad-based policy and return it to the committee in the near future for discussion.

“And when they do that, Councilman Ahmann, if you want to sit in for me, you can do that since you’re so concerned about this,’’ Fagerlie said.

“I’d love to. Thank you,’’ Ahmann said.

“All right,’’ said Fagerlie. He then paused and said, “To me, it appears someone has a chip on their shoulder and we need to get off that. We’re supposed to work as a team here.’’

Ahmann then requested Fagerlie to explain his comment. Fagerlie didn’t describe the “chip.’’

“You say what about an average guy building a house, what about Viking Motel,’’ Fagerlie said. “They had the same opportunity if they wanted to, whoever purchased it. I don’t know who purchased it. But they’re renovating it and making it into little apartments. They could have come to the city and asked for abatement also, but they didn’t. Mid-Minnesota Commission has loans…’’

At which point, Mayor Frank Yanish cut off discussion between them.

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