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City to seek bids for repairs, abatement at city auditorium

WILLMAR — For months, users of the Willmar City Auditorium have been waiting for a raft of environmental issues to be resolved so that full access to the historic building can be restored.

The end may be in sight after the Willmar City Council voted unanimously Monday night to seek bids for abatement, while simultaneously taking the project back to the council’s Finance Committee to work out the funding details.

The work involves cleaning and replacing the air handling system and abating lead contamination from the auditorium’s indoor rifle and pistol firing range, followed by restoration of the firing range itself.

How the improvements will be paid for has not been fully settled yet, however, and will need to be hashed out by the Finance Committee. The city last year set aside $250,000 in its capital budget to help cover some of the auditorium repair costs, but an architect’s estimate puts the work at about $360,000, leaving a gap for which funding must be identified.

Some on the City Council hesitated to take a vote Monday without first nailing down a financing source.

“We need to know how we’re going to pay for it before we go forward with this,” said Councilman Denis Anderson.

“We just need to identify where the remainder of the funding should come from,” agreed Councilman Bruce DeBlieck.

But council members voiced little doubt that fixing the building and reopening the indoor firing range is the right decision.

Although Councilwoman Audrey Nelsen said she was concerned about offering “a blank check to do this when we have a lot of other needs,” she urged getting the project done.

“Let’s get this building back in order to be used by the citizens of this community,” she said.

The council’s vote was welcome news to the many supporters of the indoor firing range who crowded the council chambers Monday night to see how the issue would be decided.

Nearly eight months have gone by since the range was closed after a malfunction occurred in the building’s heating, ventilating and air conditioning system, followed by discovery of the lead contamination.

Users want to see the problems resolved so that the facility can be reopened, Donovan Kuehl told the council during open discussion before the vote.

“I’m asking that there are no more delays,” said Kuehl, president of the Willmar Rifle and Pistol Club.

The wait has been highly frustrating, he said. “It always seems as if there’s just one problem after the next.”

The abatement project is part of a lengthier series of recommendations, including historic preservation of the 1930s-era building, contained in a recently completed assessment by Engan Associates of Willmar and Duffy Engineering of St. Cloud.

The consultants found numerous problems, from accessibility issues to water infiltration from leaking downspouts and roof gutters. The faulty gutters and downspouts have led to some damage of the auditorium’s brick and interior finishes. Exposure to the winter climate also has damaged the low-relief sculptures adorning the building’s facade.

Engan and Duffy put together a master plan that calls for repair and restoration over several years. Because the city auditorium is on the National Register of Historic Places, some of the preservation work could be eligible for legacy funding.

“There is value to reuse the building,” said Andy Bjur of Engan Associates and the principal author of the assessment.

To build a similar new facility would cost millions of dollars, he told the council. The city auditorium “really is a good building and it is well-used,” he said.

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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