WILLMAR — Even though the Willmar Renaissance Zone is still in the planning and vetting process, word has already begun to spread amongst interested parties and developers.

"We've had a lot of great feedback and a lot of great interest in the zone," Willmar Planning and Community Development Director Dave Ramstad recently told members of the Willmar Planning Commission.

The proposed zone would provide a host of economic development incentives to draw developers to the area and perhaps complete commercial and housing projects.

"This is for new construction and renovation, it is both," Ramstad said at the Feb. 19 Willmar Planning Commission meeting.

Ramstad, along with Willmar Planner Sarah Swedburg, this month have updated both the Planning Commission and the Willmar City Council's Community Development Committee on the Renaissance Zone, asking for the their members' feedback as well.

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"It really does require a lot of personal investment, to go through all of this, to vet it," Ramstad said. "We want to hear about it."

The Renaissance Zone, if approved, would include downtown Willmar, a swath along U.S. Highway 12 East, the residential area east of First Street and south of Highway 12 and a portion between Seventh Street and 11th Street Southwest and from Pacific Avenue to Becker Avenue Southwest.

"It was once the wealthiest part of Willmar," Ramstad said. "Right now it is the poorest census tract in Willmar."

The goal of the zone would be to bring more people from a mix of income levels downtown to live, along with transforming the area into an urban entertainment district.

"Also at the same time, preserve the naturally affordable and subsidized housing that is down there," and not displace anyone who is already there, Ramstad said. "What we are seeking is to bring middle and upper incomes."

The five-year pilot program would include incentives such as tax abatements for projects in the zone, free building permits, reduced hook-up fees for utilities and a loan program for renovation of building facades.

"This offers a cocktail of incentives that can be combined into a pretty powerful package," Ramstad said.

Ramstad would also like to add open zoning to the Renaissance Zone. This would allow developers to bring forward to the Planning Commission any kind of project, regardless of the official zoning of the parcel of land, as long as it is in the Renaissance Zone.

This does not mean every project would be approved. A project would still have to fit into the overall vision of the area, but open zoning would allow for a different mix of projects and allow developers to think outside the box.

"We are welcoming all proposals for anywhere in the Renaissance Zone," Ramstad said. "The idea is to really kick off some creativity."

The Renaissance Zone would be an overlay of the federal Opportunity Zone in Willmar, an economic development program that allows investors to use their capital gains to invest in projects and then not have to pay taxes on gains they receive from the project. Ramstad said that probably only those with a lot of money would benefit from the Opportunity Zone, while the Renaissance Zone would be for anybody with a project.

"We want to support the businesses that want to build here, the ones that have been here for decades," said Swedburg at the Feb. 24 Community Development Committee meeting.

There has already been developer interest in the proposed Renaissance Zone and the incentives that could go with it. Aaron Backman, executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, said he has already had some serious discussions with developers, from Willmar, the Twin Cities and beyond.

"I think we have a shot at some projects," Backman told the Planning Commission.

Over the past several weeks, Ramstad and Swedburg have held meetings with downtown property owners and sent information on the proposed incentives and Renaissance Zone to dozens of people. They want to gather as much feedback as possible before starting the approval process, which will have to go through the Planning Commission, the Community Development Committee and the full Willmar City Council.

Next steps include sending the draft applications for the various incentives to the city attorney and creating the process the city will use to score and approve the applicants. Ramstad hopes to have final council approval of the Renaissance Zone in April.

"We are at the point where we need to figure out how these things would actually work," Ramstad said at the Community Development Committee meeting.