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Willmar HRA is taking applications for commercial, rental and homeowner rehab funds

Rick Norsten of Rick’s Cycling and Sports Center in downtown Willmar received help from the Willmar Housing and Redevelopment Authority to install energy efficient windows and doors to the side and back of his building. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR — Staff members of the Willmar Housing and Redevelopment Authority are wondering why fewer business owners, landlords and homeowners are submitting applications this year for government rehabilitation funds than in previous years.

This is the third time in the past six years that the Willmar HRA has offered federal funding in the form of deferred loans and zero-interest loans to eligible downtown commercial building owners, owners of residential rental property and owner-occupied homes in Willmar and Kandiyohi County.

The first two-year project distributed $533,000 for residential rehabilitation in Atwater and Willmar.

The second two-year project distributed $716,000, of which $314,000 went to city and county residential owner-occupied units, $318,750 to 12 downtown commercial properties and $83,300 to owners of downtown rental units.

In the third project, the HRA has $1,076,162 to rehab eight downtown Willmar commercial properties, 17 rental units in Willmar, and 18 owner-occupied homes in Raymond and 14 owner-occupied homes in Willmar.

HRA housing progress manager Dale Slagter says funding has increased for each project.

"We use it and get the work done on time,'' he said.

Slagter says the HRA finished the last project six months early.

Possibly not this time, however.

"We're having more difficulty this time in getting applications in. I'm not sure why.'' he said.

Those interested in the program must submit their applications soon, he said.

"It all needs to be paid out by December of 2014,'' Slagter said. "We're shooting for January of 2014 to have all the money allocated so we can have time to get all the work done.''

The target area covers Willmar's downtown business district and older residential areas generally bounded by First Street South and 10th Street Southwest, and Pacific Avenue Southwest and Kandiyohi Avenue Southwest; and the area between First Street and Seventh Street Southwest, and Kandiyohi Avenue Southwest and Willmar Avenue Southwest.

Funding comes from the federal Small Cities Development Program through the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Deferred loans and zero-interest loans are available to cover a portion of rehabilitation cost; applicants provide the remaining funding.

Commercial property rehab covers interior and exterior work including smoke detection and fire suppression systems, new doors and windows, new furnaces, deferred maintenance improvements, code violation corrections, and electrical and plumbing upgrades.

Slagter said the HRA hopes to fund eight commercial projects and has four applications so far. The program has gone well in the past and helped a number of businesses improve and add value to their properties.

One program supporter is the Willmar Design Center. The center was established to improve the downtown area. The benefit to downtown is improving the look and functionality of buildings, said Beverly Dougherty, Design Center project coordinator.

She said the first grant improved 11 downtown commercial properties. Some improvements are visible like the facades at Conway, Deuth & Schmiesing and Blondies-Fat Freddy's Music.

Some improvements aren't readily apparent, such as roof work at The Barn Theatre and an elevator upgrade at Christianson & Associates, she said.

"The funding strategy is basically one-third private funding, one-third private loan funding at an attractive interest rate and one-third loan-grant that is forgiven if the property maintains the same ownership for seven years. There is no better deal,'' said Dougherty.

The rental rehab program has funding for 17 units but no applications have been received. The units can be located in apartment buildings or in single-family rental homes.

Slagter and Sue Johnson, HRA housing specialist, say the agency needs 10 more applicants for owner-occupied rehab in Raymond and 10 more in Willmar.

"We really don't have very many applicants in the Willmar residential area, which is surprising,'' said Johnson.

"In commercial, we're working on four of them right now, but we need more,'' said Johnson. "Business owners are not contacting the office for some reason.''

At Rick's Cycling and Sports Center, owner Rick Norsten said the program enabled him to complete a couple of major repairs sooner. He did safety upgrades to vacant apartments and remodeled some to make them rentable. Also, he repaired damaged brick and mortar, and replaced old windows and exterior doors.

"With utilities running about $2,000 a month, making the building more energy-efficient helps,'' Norsten said.

"While the changes might not have been readily apparent from the street, they definitely are now that the old Ann's Café building is torn down,'' he said, referring to a building north of the cycle shop. "A lot has happened not only in the downtown but throughout the city to improve it. It is not happening overnight, but it is happening.''

Norsten asks the community to support the improvements.

"Let's stop complaining about the city and start doing things to improve it,'' he said. "I would like to thank all the people who have worked so hard behind the scenes to help the city. After all, the city belongs to all of us.''

More information about the program is available by calling the HRA at 320-235-8637.

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