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Pokemon Go a big hit in Willmar

Ana and Guillermo Serrano play Pokemon Go at Selvig Park. While the game is all about catching Pokemon, players are also getting the chance to visit places in their town and learn things they might not have known about Willmar. (Shelby Lindrud / Tribune) 1 / 4
Don't be alarmed when you see a group of people croweded in one spot, glued to their phones. They are probably just playing Pokemon Go, the lastest mobile phone crazy sweeping across the globe. A hot spot in Willmar is the grounds of the Willmar Courthouse, where there are at least two pokespots. Playing the game, from left: Cody Hedin, Jessica Nichols, Julian Castellano, Jason Lowery and Trevor Pulvermacher. (Shelby Lindrud / Tribune)2 / 4
Pokemon are showing up all over Willmar. A Goldeen swims serenely in front of the Willmar Civic Center, before getting captured. (Shelby Lindrud / Tribune) 3 / 4
A Bellsprout sprouts on top of a vehicle's dashboard, parked by Bethel Lutheran Church in Willmar. With the Pokemon Go app, Pokemon can be found anywhere. (Shelby Lindrud / Tribune) 4 / 4

WILLMAR -- Residents of Willmar might notice a significant increase in the number of people walking around town, eyes glued to their phone screens. They’re gathering downtown, by schools, in parks and traversing the miles of sidewalks around town all with their cell phones firmly in sight. There is no need to be alarmed, these people are probably playing the latest mobile gaming craze, Pokemon Go.

“I’ve been playing it 24/7,” Jessica Nichols said, as she and a group of fellow players gathered in front of the Kandiyohi County Courthouse. The Chief Kandiyohi statue and the historical markers on the courthouse grounds are pokestops, places where players can collect virtual items they need to play the game.

“It is just a bunch of nerds, nerding out,” Jason Lowery said, who is not only a player, but started the Pokemon Go Willmar, MN Facebook group. It has over 200 members and is a place fellow players can talk about the game, where to find certain pokemon and where to meet up.

“We give a lot of tips,” Nichols said.

For many players, Pokemon Go gives them a chance to live their childhood fantasy, catching pokemon. Many playing the mobile game now were in middle schooler or high school when the Pokemon game first came into their lives.

“We grew up with it,” Ana Serrano said, playing the game at Selvig Park, which is another pokestop in Willmar.

Unlike most video games, Pokemon Go urges its players to go outside, walk around their neighborhood and hunt the elusive little monsters.

“I like it because I don’t get out much. This has been such a change,” Nichols said.

“Pokemon Go has done more in the days it’s been out than Michelle Obama has done in four years” to get people outside and active, Lowery said.

Lowery said the game has given him a chance to meet new people and converse with others who love Pokemon. People from all backgrounds, races and nationalities are playing and they are all welcome, Lowery said.

“It’s fun to meet new people. I didn’t know any of these people,” Julian Castellano said.

The game is also giving players an opportunity to get to know their town better. Guillermo Serrano had never really paid attention to Selvig Park before he came downtown to play Pokemon Go. Now he knows the fountain in the park is from Belgium.

“You learn about things you wouldn’t know. You learn things about your town and community,” Guillermo Serrano said.

A major hot spot for Pokemon Go in Willmar is the Kandiyohi County Historical Society. Not only is there a gym, but three pokestops. When museum staff found out, they made sure to spread the word to players.

“The more people that come out the better,” said Historical Society Executive Director Jill Wohnoutka.

Groups of people have come to the museum, to walk the grounds looking for pokemon, gathering the goods at the pokestops and testing their pokemon’s battle skills at the gym.

“We saw young people walking around the yard. I’ve seen parents driving their kids around,” said Bayley Schluter, collections specialist.

The sudden appearance of Pokemon Go on the scene has reached the Willmar Police Department, but Police Chief Jim Felt said so far there hasn’t been any major issues related to the game or its players.

“I think it’s great people want to play here, but do it safely and respect the rights of others,” Felt said.

Tips Felt has given to players include playing with a buddy, especially at night, remembering Robbins Island does close from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m, stay out of private property and be aware of one's surroundings.

“And obviously not while driving,” Felt said.

The police department has responded to a few suspicious persons calls that turned out to be Pokemon Go players. The officers did speak to the players to make sure everything was okay, Felt said.

“We’ve encountered more people because of it,” and had conversations with residents police officers probably wouldn’t have had, Felt said.

Most players have been very good about keeping the police informed. Lowery reached out the Willmar Police Department when he started the facebook page, to make sure the cops were aware about the game and the players around town.

“I never imagined in my career I would be talking about Pokemon,” Felt said, adding he’ll probably need to ask his kids all about the game.

While it is still early to see if the game has major staying power, right now it’s all about Pokemon.

“We’re getting as many people as we can. I want this to be a fun thing for everyone,” Lowery said.

“And I love it,” Nichols said.

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