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Controversial Westwind Estates, low-income homes at forefront of the candidates' issues

WILLMAR -- Discussion about low-income housing and the controversial Westwind workforce housing project consumed about half of a 60-minute Willmar City Council candidates' forum Wednesday night.

Attending the forum were Ward 2 incumbent Steve Gardner, who is seeking a second four-year term, and challenger Tim Johnson.

Also attending were Ward 4 incumbent Jim Dokken, who has served 10 years and is seeking re-election to another four-year term, and challenger Susana Hunnicutt.

The forum was sponsored by the Willmar Area League of Women Voters and Heartland Community Action Agency. The forum was presented live over WRAC-TV, the local public access channel, and was taped for later presentation.

The first question submitted by a citizen and read by moderator Jan Stadtherr asked where the city should build low-income housing.

Gardner, a Westwind supporter, said the project was workforce housing for people who had to have jobs and good credit. They were not bad people or a bad people group, but were working people trying to make a life for themselves and their families, he said.

"There are areas where we need to consider more lower-income housing,'' he said.

Johnson said the location depends on where the need is and how the project will be financed. He said Westwind is financed with tax dollars, "and when we place that housing we have to also abide by the existing conditions in the neighborhood where they're placed.''

Johnson said one requirement that was totally ignored was the effect of Westwind on surrounding housing values.

"I don't know that there was a need for its location where it currently is. The question was where,'' he said.

Dokken doubted the need for new low-income housing. Instead, he spoke in favor of building and improving homes and neighborhoods in the core areas where the city has spent millions on reconstructing streets and utilities.

"Without a proven need to build more apartments, that doesn't make sense,'' he said.

Hunnicutt said the city does not have enough low-income housing. She said the city has a responsibility to provide what's necessary for all who are here as much as for those who were here before.

"Some properties in town that can be fixed up. But with the cost of repairs and materials it takes to do that these days, it's not feasible for a lot of those places that we want to be revived rather than building new,'' she said.

During opening statements, Gardner, a 26-year resident, said the public is not recognizing his hard work and dedication this year because of the Westwind controversy in Ward 2. He said opponents said Westwind would ruin the neighborhood, while others saw no legal reason to deny it.

"This issue has overshadowed all of the other work that I've done ... to bring business to town, enhance the tax base, improve the downtown business climate, keep a salvage yard out of an area that it should never have been allowed in and work to improve and enhance the public library,'' he said.

Johnson, a 33-year resident, said his exposure to diverse population growing up as a military family moving around the country is "invaluable to my perspective of people and trying to understand what different people think and how they feel.''

Johnson said he's running because many are dissatisfied with the current Ward 2 representation. He said Westwind was a major issue, but said there are other issues as well.

Johnson said residents don't feel their voice has been heard, "and I think also many people have a lot of questions about things that have been going on in Willmar city-wide and some things coming out of City Hall.''

Dokken, a life-long resident, said his 20 years of Air Force service and experience qualify him to serve on the council. He said city government is not "open and transparent enough'' and he wants to allow citizens to be more involved in council decisions.

He favors holding all council committee meetings in the Municipal Utilities Building chambers where proceedings can be video-taped for citizens to watch on WRAC.

Hunnicutt, who has lived here for 20 years, said she cares about people, the multicultural situation, downtown, infrastructure and education of children.

"I'm willing to work and work hard for the city of Willmar, if I am elected, so I can do a good job for you,'' she said.