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Upgrading Willmar's places to play

Briana Sanchez / TribuneOliver Duininck, 11, uses the ice rink at the Civic Center during open ice hours to practice for the hockey season. The ice arena is one of the places that would benefit from the sales tax passing.1 / 2
Briana Sanchez / TribuneThese ice rink chillers keep the ice cold Wednesday at the Civic Center. The chillers are connected to tubes that run underneath the ice. This chiller and refrigerator system would be one of the items that would be replaced if the sales tax passes. The chillers should be replaced every five years.2 / 2

WILLMAR—While the fate of the local option sales tax is in the hands of Willmar voters and the state legislature, Willmar city staff and officials are starting to plan what projects will be funded by the raised tax revenue.

"We're here tonight to discuss options available to us," Steve Brisendine, Willmar Community Education and Recreation director, said during Monday's city council meeting.

The tax, if passed, could raise approximately $2.2 million every year. The council decided the tax would raise around $10 million, with that money being split between three locations. Robbins Island would receive $4 million, the Swansson Field Complex $3 million and the Willmar Civic Center $3 million.

Brisendine said the Willmar park board met to go over the master park plan to decide which projects at Robbins Island and Swansson Field to focus on. The board also discussed the Civic Center.

When it comes to the Civic Center, the majority of the $3 million will go towards replacing the ice refrigeration system, which has begun to show its age. This past January the system went on the fritz, causing the ice to melt in the Cardinal Arena and emergency, unbudgeted repairs were needed.

The estimated cost of replacing the system is about $2.5 million. The remaining money could fund expansion of other amenities at the civic center including locker rooms, meeting space or an indoor play area.

"So siblings of users have a place instead of sitting in a bleacher for the hour their siblings are on the ice practicing," Brisendine said.

The master park plan, completed in 2015, has grand plans for both Robbins Island and Swansson Field.

"Swansson Field has a number of improvements for that facility," Brisendine said.

Top of the list is updating the lighting at several of the fields.

"We have pretty inferior lights at the facility right now," Brisendine said, adding the lights are from the 1970s and nearing the end of their useful life.

In addition to the lights, the sales tax funds could also be used for infrastructure changes like a new entrance, additional parking and a plaza area in-between the ball fields with a 2-season shelter and play area.

"That would be the majority of the $3 million in local option sales tax," Brisendine said.

There are over $8 million worth of improvements for Robbins Island in the park plan. The park board recommended the sales tax money be used for infrastructure including parking, trails and roads, construction of a shelter, restrooms and perhaps an amphitheater and other smaller projects.

"Our goal would be to create a park that can be utilized 12 months a year," Brisendine said.

The shelter could be 4-season, allowing for activities in summer and winter. Park users could rent equipment at the shelter, along with being able to hold family events.

Brisendine said the estimated costs for each project are relatively recent and the costs for Robbins Island were updated not long ago by SRF, the company who put together the park plan.

"I believe the park amenities are pretty solid numbers still," Brisendine said.

The cost estimates for the infrastructure improvements like roads might be a little different, as those costs seem to fluctuate more.

"Obviously when putting things out to bid there are a lot of changes. Estimates aren't always what they appear to be," Brisendine said.

The next step for the city is to gather information about the projects and get it into the hands of the voters. This could mean creating brochures covering the projects.

The council approved a motion supporting the park board's recommendations on the projects and giving permission for staff to develop a marketing plan for the sales tax and the projects. This could include hiring an outside marketing firm.

"Now we're moving toward the finishing line. We need to get moving," Councilman Denis Anderson said.

City Attorney Robert Scott said the city can only educate about the sales tax and projects.

"The city cannot spend public money to advocate for a position. You can't urge its passage," Scott said.

However, individual councilmembers and staff can take a position as long as they don't use public funds, Scott said.

While the future of the local option sales tax won't be clearly known until after election day and the next legislative session, Brisendine said this kind of tax is one of the best ways to make projects like Robbins Island and Swansson Field possible.

"It's the one way we have a better opportunity to raise the funds to get this work done," Brisendine said.

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