WILLMAR — When downtown and a portion of the U.S. Highway 12 commercial corridor were chosen as Willmar's lone federal Opportunity Zone, David Ramstad and his staff at city Planning and Development definitely saw an opportunity.

While the Opportunity Zone as a tool is geared more toward developers with deep pockets and capital gains, Ramstad wanted Willmar's zone to become a rebirth for the poorest area of town. Out of those dreams came the Willmar Renaissance Zone and a list of development incentives that can be used by all.

"The Opportunity Zone is for the extreme wealthy. How many folks in Willmar are really going to be able to take advantage of that?" Ramstad said. "This overlay (Renaissance Zone), which is exactly on the same footprint, brings all these incentives that are available to local contractors and property owners. It makes it a Willmar thing."

David Ramstad
David Ramstad
It has taken nearly a year to create, plan and get approval for all the pieces of the Renaissance Zone. Starting Dec. 25, the zone will officially be open for business until at least December 2025, when the initial pilot program is set to expire.

Willmar's Renaissance Zone includes 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.

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The incentives for projects within the area touch on a wide range of issues from zoning and tax abatement to façade improvements and construction permits.

"We really took everything and the kitchen sink and threw it in to this thing," Ramstad said.

Free city building permits, as well as free water and sewer connections, will be especially helpful for multi-family housing projects, which are usually charged per unit for utilities connections.

"On a multimillion-dollar project, those three alone would save tens of thousands of dollars," Ramstad said.

Willmar Municipal Utilities is also supporting the Renaissance Zone by offering a 50 percent reduction in the cost for new service connections for projects in the zone.

Eligible projects could also take advantage of tax abatement, tax increment financing, free or significantly reduced city land and open zoning.

Open zoning does not mean any project presented will be approved, but will act more as a conditional use permit process for some projects, allowing a project into the zone as long as it meets certain requirements. Ramstad hopes the new way of looking at the area's zoning brings more creativity and imagination to the Renaissance Zone.

"Anybody can come in with any idea they have and pitch it for approval," Ramstad said. "This opens it up to all ideas."

There is also help for commercial properties located in the Renaissance Zone. A forgivable loan program will assist in sprucing up property exteriors.

Each year the city will award $50,000 in loans, in amounts of $5,000 or $10,000, to fund 50 percent of the total project costs. If the owner remains with the building for five years, the entire loan amount will be forgiven, otherwise 20 percent of the loan is forgiven each year.

"It can only be used for exterior work. So the public can see where the money is being spent," Ramstad said.

One of the main goals of the Renaissance Zone is to increase the amount of housing available in downtown. The city also wants to make sure all economic levels can afford to live in the area. In the Renaissance Zone, all new housing projects that receive tax abatement or tax increment financing will need to have at least 5 percent or one unit for low-income families, but no more than 25 percent.

"We are trying to make downtown a place for everyone," Ramstad said.

Since planning for the Renaissance Zone began, Ramstad said he, along with the local Economic Development Commission, has heard from potential developers possibly interested in a project, both commercial and housing, though nothing official. Ramstad expects the pandemic has probably pushed back any projects by about a year.

"Now I am hoping the vaccine will normalize that effect," Ramstad said.

Ramstad has high hopes for the Renaissance Zone, and thinks it will only take a few new projects to change the entire feel of downtown. He points to the downtown Kwik Trip as an example.

"That has really enhanced downtown in a big way," Ramstad said. "We are hoping that will create a snowball effect."

There are eligibility requirements and applications for all of the incentives. Anyone interested in the Renaissance Zone can contact Ramstad at the city or Aaron Backman, executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

"We are really, very excited about it," Ramstad said.

For related stories, see Renaissance Zone.