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Willmar joins Highway 23 Coalition seeking funds to close four-lane gaps

Highway 23 Coalition A brochure shows the two gaps that remain in the four-lane on state Highway 23 between Willmar and Interstate 94. The city of Willmar has joined the Highway 23 Coalition that is seeking state money to complete the four-lane. The coalition is comprised of cities, counties and businesses along the state Highway 23 corridor.

WILLMAR — The city of Willmar has officially joined the Highway 23 Coalition.

"This has been a long-term project," said Councilor Kathy Schwantes.

While the coalition has been in existence for several years now, there has been a recent push to become more formally organized in an attempt to persuade the state to approve money for state Highway 23 projects.

"The coalition has been seeking state funding to complete the two four-lane gaps on Highway 23 between Willmar and I-94," said Aaron Backman, director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, as well as secretary of the coalition.

The Willmar City Council approved a resolution to become an advocate member, which includes dues of $3,000.

In the past few weeks, Backman and EDC staff have been meeting with cities, counties and businesses along the state Highway 23 corridor to bring more members on board. Backman said being a member allows parties to proactively plan for the future of the corridor, along with positively impacting the safety, economy and quality of life in west central Minnesota.

"You would have a seat at the table," Backman said.

Backman announced at last week's Willmar City Council meeting that the cities of New London and Spicer have joined the coalition, while the cities of Richmond, Paynesville and Cold Spring, along with Stearns County, will be considering membership at their upcoming council and board meetings. Businesses including Dooley's Petroleum and JME of New London, a concrete and aggregate products business, are also on board as members.

"We're getting the business community involved," Backman said.

According to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, there are 1,138 business which rely on transportation, with more than 30,000 employees, in the surrounding region.

"Willmar is one of the largest outstate cities without four-lane access," Backman said.

The two specific projects on which the coalition is focused are the two-lane portions of Highway 23 between New London and Paynesville and between Paynesville and Richmond. The south gap is seven miles, while the northern gap is another eight miles.The total cost for completing both gaps into four lanes is estimated to cost anywhere between $124 million to $168 million.

"The first section from New London to Paynesville is shovel ready. The second section is not," said Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin.

There was money for the south gap in the last state bonding bill, but it never materialized when the governor did not sign the bill.

"That is water over the dam. We just have to keep pushing forward," Calvin said.

Backman said he foresees a need for the coalition for several years to come.

The council resolution to join the coalition passed unanimously.

"We want to be that regional city. We've got the energy and leadership," Councilor Fernando Alvarado said in support of joining the coalition.

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