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Council discusses feasibility statement for airport

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council has adopted a position statement that says the old airport terminal and paved ramp area should be demolished and that the smaller hangar located nearby should be rehabilitated for an historic display about the airport and recognize a local family's contribution to aviation.

The council voted Monday to adopt the position statement. Mayor Frank Yanish said the statement will be given this morning to the Federal Aviation Administration and the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office.

The city has been seeking to have FAA release the old airport land including the terminal area to the city for redevelopment as an industrial park after the new airport opened west of town in September 2006. But FAA has been delaying the land release because the old terminal was declared eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

The terminal was deemed historically significant because it was built in 1941 as a National Youth Administration project with federal New Deal funds and the terminal's complex wooden roof trusses were described as a rare surviving example of the work done by an NYA work center. However, the city declared the terminal unsafe due to mold and structural problems and said it should be torn down.

But FAA and the state asked the city to study reuse of the terminal before any consideration is given to demolition and requested the city study a minimum of three reuse options for warehouse or storage purpose, manufacturing, or a use that would require extensive rehabilitation.

The council a couple of months ago authorized Engan Associates of Willmar to conduct the study at a cost of $5,000. The recently completed study looked at three potential options for rehabilitating and reusing the structure:

- Storage-only standards with a combustible storage occupancy, with office use, estimated at $646,500.

- Industrial standard with employee usage with a manufacturing and industrial use. Estimated cost: $1,127,500.

- Full public usage with an assembly and business occupancy. Estimated cost: $1,191,250.

City staff had estimated bringing the building up to code would cost from $600,000 to $1.3 million.

Also, the study estimated full demolition at $180,000 or partial demolition with removal of office area at $50,000. The cost of rehabilitating the smaller hangar is estimated at $60,000.

The position statement was recommended by the council's Community Development Committee after the panel received Engan's study.

Chairman Jim Dokken reported the committee agreed that the level of investment required to rehab the terminal could not be justified given the high costs that would need to be passed on to a buyer or tenant for the building when completed, as the rehab costs far exceed market value.

City staff told the committee that they had been working on a position statement for FAA and the state. They said it's the city's responsibility to draft a position statement for the most reasonable and prudent use of the building and to use that as the basis of the argument regarding the site.

Staff suggested the city's position should be that the terminal and paved ramp area be demolished and that the smaller hangar, known as the Rice hangar, be rehabilitated for a display recognizing the John L. Rice family contribution to aviation, as well as the history of the former airport.

It was suggested that this be done in conjunction with the County Historical Society and the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. The proposal would also include preservation and maintenance of the former signal beacon, as well as maintenance of a parking area and access to the smaller hangar.

Council member Denis Anderson said the request seemed reasonable. He asked if the city will be able to sell the property for use as it is being used now for industrial storage.

Planning and Development Director Bruce Peterson suggested the city continue with proposed redevelopment of that site for industrial purposes. He said Bergh's Fabricating voided a purchase agreement but has the right of first refusal "as the situation plays out'' to possibly buy the parcel or the adjacent lot to the west.

"I think this is an awfully good compromise and I hope that those folks will hear us,'' said Anderson.

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