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Work begins on repair, redevelopment of former Lakeland Hotel in Willmar, Minn.

Tom Amberg, who now owns the Lakeland Hotel in downtown Willmar, plans to do some exterior work to the building. His plans include pressure-washing and sanding and repainting the metal balcony railings. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- One of the panes of glass in the 86-year-old skylight that lights the lobby of the old Lakeland Hotel building is broken and boarded over.

But every other window is intact and the building's owner, Tom Amberg, hopes to find a replacement pane that matches the original as closely as possible.

The same goes for the wallpaper, the classic woodwork and the building's brick exterior.

"We want to try to keep it as original as we can," Amberg said. "There's tons of potential for this building."

Repairs and restoration are underway at the historic hotel building, which sits in the heart of downtown Willmar at Fourth Street and Litchfield Avenue. Commercial tenants occupy the ground floor; the upper two floors contain about 30 apartments.

Built in 1927, the Lakeland was once the city's grandest hotel. More recently it fell on hard times and went into foreclosure, from which it emerged in January when Amberg, a Willmar businessman and property investor, bought the building.

The to-do list is long: painting the interior, pressure-washing the exterior, repainting the metalwork balcony railings on the topmost floor, putting on a new roof.

Most of the major work will likely be completed before the year is over. When it's done, Amberg hopes to have a building that's commercially viable and ready to resume its place as a center of downtown activity.

"I'm a businessman. I want to get the cash flow going," he said. "I want it to be something that's going to be viable for the next 30 years and beyond. ... We're in it for the long haul."

Amberg owns and manages properties in five counties. His other holdings in downtown Willmar include Building 330, formerly known as the Habicht building, on the Fourth Street and Becker Avenue corner, but the Lakeland building is "the most challenging by far," he said.

Renovation has had to balance the building's 1920s-era construction and historic character with modern-day use.

For example, some of the second- and third-floor apartments, originally hotel rooms that shared a bathroom down the hall, needed to be remodeled to include private bathrooms. Wireless Internet, a service completely unknown when the Lakeland Hotel was built, was installed for the tenants.

Mechanical systems, including new water lines, had to be upgraded to meet current and future demand by the restaurant tenants on the ground floor. Energy conservation measures are being added.

Making improvements has meant working with the quirks of a building designed in a different era. Roof replacement alone took lengthy deliberation, Amberg said. "There's seven different ways we looked at doing it."

While modernizing the building, he's also trying to preserve its original features, many of which -- such as the skylight in the lobby -- are still intact.

The building was placed two years ago on the National Register of Historic Places, a move that makes it eligible for state and national historic preservation tax credits. Amberg said he is still researching the implications of this tax credit category and hasn't decided yet whether to apply.

Public interest in the building's future is high. The Willmar Design Center, a nonprofit group working to spur the economic and social revitalization of the downtown district, sees the redevelopment of the Lakeland Hotel property as one of the catalysts that will prompt investments in other downtown buildings.

Amberg said his long-term plans include creating a food court in the lobby and developing some of the ground-floor commercial space into a wine bar or sports bar.

"Everyone has mentioned that we need something like that downtown," he said. "Downtown needs a draw. You've got to have a reason for people to come. I think a restaurant downtown would do very well."

After his purchase of the hotel building was announced in January, people began sending him old photographs of the building in its heyday. Networking and word of mouth resulted in dozens of offers to help with the renovation, from finding the right person to install water pipes to selling the old freight elevator.

"Everybody comes in and asks questions and gives me referrals," Amberg said. "It works really, really good. Everything's kind of coming together."

The interest in the building has been one of the most rewarding aspects so far, he said. "Things have changed downtown. It's a good thing. I'm very excited. ... Willmar is a hub. We've got a lot going on around us and I think it all started downtown."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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