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City Council OKs researching office space needs

Officials with the city of Willmar are looking at alternative sites to operate from as the city office building, seen above, has reached its maximum capacity. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- City officials will research the possibility of using Willmar School District property as the site for future city offices.

The City Council this week approved a motion by council member Doug Reese directing city staff to explore and research the possibility of using any school property for city purposes and that discussions include representatives of Kandiyohi County and Willmar Municipal Utilities.

During the Public Works/Safety Committee meeting Jan. 12, Reese introduced discussion focusing on the school district's recent reorganization, the need for more city office space and long-range planning.

Reese suggested that -- with the availability of school buildings and property -- the city should talk with school officials and determine the feasibility of using school property for future city offices.

Reese said Garfield School and the adjacent park area, located near downtown, seemed like a logical site.

During the council meeting Tuesday, council member Jim Dokken said he is not convinced that now is a good time, considering national and state economic conditions. Dokken said he wants to know what the staff is looking for, what is needed and the timeline for long-range planning.

"I think that was exactly the intent of the motion is to get better information and to really take a look at what are our needs, what are the possibilities and determine the funding,'' said Reese. "I think all of those questions would be answered hopefully through this research by staff.''

Council member Steve Ahmann recalled that the idea of using Garfield arose in 1993 when the city sold land to the school district for the senior high school.

"At that time there was an understanding that at the time the Garfield School was made available, they would be receptive to talking with us about that,'' Ahmann said. "This has been talked about for a quite a while, utilization of existing facilities, that we have throughout the community, rather than building new. But I'm not sure what the needs are.''

The council approved the motion on a voice vote.

Mayor Les Heitke, in his State of the City Address, praised Reese for raising the need for a larger and improved city hall, and improved council chambers, which are now located at the Municipal Utilities Building. With City Hall being crowded and the utilities needing more office space, the council should seriously look at a larger facility with adequate parking and meeting space for citizens, Heitke said.

In an interview Wednesday, City Administrator Michael Schmit said he has long advocated for doing something with the city offices "because we have no room to grow here. It's not laid out ideally for us.''

Schmit said the current building does not have enough room for committee meetings to accommodate the public and lacks storage space. Also, he said the disconnect between City Hall and the utilities chambers is inconvenient.

Schmit said city office improvements have been informally discussed, including construction of an addition to the present downtown building, which would have housed new council chambers and some office space on the second floor. But the council was not excited about the idea, he said.

When the city gave the school district land for the high school, the city entered into an agreement that said in the event the school district for whatever reason no longer uses Garfield or the Education and Arts Center, the district would give those to the city.

Later, the city received a grant from the Dorothy Olson estate to construct the aquatic center. The school district gave the land for the aquatic center to the city but wanted the city to drop Garfield from the agreement. Schmit said the city agreed.

Reese had asked Schmit about long-range plans. Reese thought the city should be talking to the school district about some of the buildings being vacated. Schmit said the timing is probably good because the school administration had contacted him to see if there was still any interest in Garfield.

"So it's kind of a combination of all these things that apparently the mayor and some council members are feeling that the timing is right and that if the school is serious about disposing of some of its property, maybe we should look at these possibilities to see if it even makes sense,'' Schmit said.

The discussion will include the county and possible reuse of the downtown courthouse property if the county builds a new courthouse near the Health and Human Services Building, he said.

Schmit said the city will not incur any costs. The city will do nothing other than talk and get an understanding of the county's and utility's long-range plans "and see how it fits into our own.''

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