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Design Center to study feasibility of downtown Willmar, Minn., historic district

WILLMAR -- The Willmar Design Center will be studying whether an area of downtown Willmar can be designated as an historic district.

The process will begin with a feasibility study by historian Daniel Hoisington of Hoisington Preservation Consultants of Roseville. Hoisington was hired with a $7,000 state Legacy grant obtained by the Design Center's Preservation and Design Standards Committee.

As part of the study, Hoisington will walk through downtown beginning at 1 p.m. Friday to gauge the historical significance and integrity of older buildings in the central business district. The public is invited.

He'll also be joined by local historian Don Miller and former City Clerk Richard Hoglund. Both men know much about the early history of many of the buildings, says Beverly Dougherty, Design Center project coordinator.

Dougherty said a video recording of the event will be made by Sam Nelson and Shawn Mueske of Willmar. Dougherty said preserving that information is a first step in how local residents talk and think about the historic buildings remaining in downtown Willmar.

If Hoisington's study is positive, then the Design Center would move ahead with submitting a grant application to have the district nominated to the National Historic Register, just as the Lakeland Hotel and the War Memorial Auditorium are listed.

If the designation is approved by state and federal agencies, the buildings in the district will qualify for 20 percent state and 20 percent federal historic preservation tax credits, said Dougherty.

"It's the same project that would have benefited the Lakeland Hotel and we could have restored it to its former glory and that didn't work out,'' she said. "So now we're going after a historic district, which would be a really nice thing to do for downtown and bring some rehabilitation money downtown.''

The Design Center, established in 2005, is a local nonprofit focusing on revitalizing downtown Willmar. The Design Center is a member of Minnesota Main Street, which promotes stimulating local business development and reinvesting in historic buildings.

Dougherty said the Design Center formed the Historic Preservation and Design Standards Committee "because we didn't feel we were addressing that part of what we're directed to do by being members. But it's also really to improve downtowns and to recognize your historic buildings.''

Dougherty said seeing photographs of buildings that have been torn down "just makes you sick. All those beautiful buildings are gone and because the roof leaked. I'm hoping there are people in Willmar that want to be a part of that movement to preserve and fix and keep things looking nice, but they haven't had that place to congregate. I'm hoping the committee will help.''

Hoisington said the overall goal is to preserve a city's historic heritage. He'll determine if there is something important in a building's history that illustrates something about the history of Willmar, and if the building still looks pretty much like it might have at that time when it was built.

Also, he'll determine if an area is a historic district or just a collection of interesting buildings.

"Is there a core of buildings that we can define the boundary and say, 'This is a nice historic district,' '' he said.

"It's always fun to learn stuff and just to hear the stories when you go to a town,'' said Hoisington.

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