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Willmar, Minn., City Council member seeks action plan if companies close

WILLMAR -- City Council member Steve Ahmann is requesting the city develop a strategy and action plan if companies announce local plant closings.

Ahmann made his request to the City Council and staff Monday night in response to the April 16 announcement that longtime promotional products manufacturer Molenaar LLC was being sold, that the local plant will close in June, and that 90 employees would be affected.

Molenaar parent company Wilson Tool International said it had signed a letter of intent to sell Molenaar to Fey Promotional Products Group of Edgerton. Fey plans to move Molenaar's manufacturing to Edgerton and close the plant here, which has been in operation for more than 50 years.

Staff of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission negotiated behind-the-scenes to keep the facility here, including a $5 million financing package to let two individuals buy Molenaar and keep the plant in Willmar.

But all efforts were unsuccessful, according to Steve Renquist, EDC executive director.

Ahmann said the mayor should be notified and the council should meet on how the city can assist any business that will be leaving.

"I think a plan of action would be a good step for this council to take, to at least implement a plan so we have the strategy in place so that when it comes up and who the players will be. I think it would be a good plan of action,'' he said.

Planning and Development Director Bruce Peterson said staff moves rapidly to meet with companies when staff becomes aware of activities by a company that would indicate the company is looking to make a major reduction in work force or close shop completely.

Peterson said the EDC is the economic development group charged by the city to represent the city on those issues and he said the EDC has a process in place.

"Mr. Renquist and I do communicate multiple times a week and we do have these discussions, and when necessary we do have these meetings with the companies. We can certainly look at putting something together so that we have a response plan,'' Peterson said.

He said staff is always aware of the technical and financial assistance that can be offered to a company.

"Usually by the time it gets to be public, they've made a business decision and there's very little the local community can do unless we had the financial wherewithal to step in and make a huge financial contribution to the company,'' he said.

"In the case of Molenaar, that just wasn't the case. The company that purchased Molenaar a few years ago decided they weren't the best fit for them to continue to own, and they went out and found another company that they thought would own and operate them as a better fit and be a better part of their overall corporate structure,'' he said.

Council member Denis Anderson asked if the city needs additional tools to assist companies.

"I think we need to look at that because it is a loss. It hurts our community. It hurts the families that lost their jobs,'' said Anderson.

City Administrator Charlene Stevens said the city and county have given the EDC the primary task of economic development, which includes job creation and job retention.

"But it certainly is something that we can at the staff level with the EDC director and county level talk about what the tools are that the community has available to it and if those tools are enough to compete,'' Steven said.

Peterson said economic development offerings are not nearly as abundant as they were 15 to 20 years ago. "But there are some certain tools that can be used and we will have those discussions,'' he said.

Ahmann said he appreciates and applauds the EDC efforts. But he said larger businesses make decisions quickly. "We also have to have a plan of action so we can respond quickly, too. We should know as a council what we're willing to offer,'' he said.

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