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Willmar, Minn., meetings: Downtown diversity appreciated; safety misperception a worry

Downtown Willmar was the subject of several community meetings this week. The results of the discussions will be compiled in a draft plan of improvements. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)

WILLMAR -- Appreciation for diversity and local business investment, and lack of green space and misperception about safety were recurrent themes raised by participants attending a series of four downtown improvement meetings Wednesday and Thursday sponsored by the city of Willmar and Willmar Design Center.

City and Design Center representatives met with more than a dozen African community members, and then met with a handful of Latino business and community people Wednesday night. On Thursday, they met with about 12 government and institutional representatives, followed by a session with more than 30 business and property owners Thursday night.

The first session was a community open house attended by about 60 community members Tuesday night.

The meetings were an initiative of Mayor Frank Yanish to update four downtown improvement goals developed by the Design Center in cooperation with local citizens in a 2006 document called the Visioneer.

"It's my opinion that we need to have a revitalized downtown in order to have a good, strong, growing regional city,'' Yanish told the groups in soliciting their comments. "We're here to make that happen. It will happen. It's been discussed for a long time, but we're moving forward rapidly.''

Diversity was seen as a plus in just about every group, said City Administrator Charlene Stevens. Other common themes were investments by business owners and the need for more open space, green space or small or "pocket'' areas where people could gather.

"We heard that downtown is important to the community and important to the region and we heard people want to make an investment in downtown. That's very encouraging,'' Stevens said.

City Development Director Bruce Peterson, who helped lead the discussions, said there was excitement about health care availability, professional businesses and the amount of good things that exist downtown.

"Along with appreciation for diversity, there was a much expressed willingness to learn more about the other cultures and have cross-cultural exchange,'' Peterson said. "They realize that it takes all cultures to make the downtown successful.''

Participants were dismayed that some local citizens and some living outside Willmar in the region mistakenly believe that crime is a problem in downtown.

"People who are downtown, shop downtown, work downtown and spend time downtown feel that it is safe, but there's an education that needs to be out there for others,'' Stevens said.

Peterson said no anecdotal evidence was presented where anyone was able to cite an incident that was unsafe or disturbing or gave rise to safety concerns.

Stevens said there's a lot of enthusiasm for downtown and for moving forward with plans.

"I think that's very positive,'' she said. "I think across all of our stakeholder meetings there's been some broad representation and folks want downtown to be vibrant.''

Peterson said the clearest message was that downtown has a core group of people that don't think that downtown Willmar is dead or dying.

"And think that with a few tweaks it can really be a prominent feature for the community. That will be our job to figure out how to go about making that happen,'' he said.

Stevens said the challenge will be to channel enthusiasm into action and keeping people involved.

"We heard a lot tonight about the need for marketing and that's really not necessarily a city function. So it might be connecting people and helping businesses collectively figure how to market and move forward themselves. Some of the things we heard are clearly not government function to fix or to do but are important. So maybe our role is to facilitate the discussion or maybe that's a Design Center role,'' Stevens said.

Peterson said common themes will be developed from preferences, dislikes, goals and visions into a plan that will probably consist of 10 or 12 project elements and ideas on what will be done going forward. Peterson said they could deal with activities, infrastructure, and physical and private development. Peterson said the city can provide technical assistance to make more things happen.

"It's important to realize that this isn't all going to happen with public dollars,'' according to Peterson. "The best the city can do is to make good infrastructure investments to create the environment that will stimulate the private investment and that's our goal.''

He hopes to have a draft plan available next month that will be reviewed by the Planning Commission and City Council. More public comment will be sought. Based on those comments, the plan will be revised and a final revision will be presented to the council for adoption at the end of February or early March.

Peterson said the plan will prioritize and provide cost ranges for improvements, name funding sources, financing and timelines.

"The public and private sectors will know what their responsibilities are and the city will work with the Design Center and effective downtown organizations and individuals to do the plan,'' he said.

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