WILLMAR - The Willmar City Council has finally focused on one possible site for a new city hall - Block 25 on the northeast corner of the downtown business district.

A resolution approved at Monday's council meeting directs staff to begin negotiations with two property owners, as well as start soil testing, to learn more about the condition of the entire block.

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"It is time to make a decision and move forward with a new city hall that this city can be proud of," Councilor Kathy Schwantes said.

The City Hall Task Force - made up of Councilors Fernando Alvarado, Julie Asmus, Shawn Mueske and Schwantes; Mayor Marv Calvin; Administrator Ike Holland; and other city staff - brought three options to the full council Monday night. The trio of choices was to remodel the current Willmar City Offices building; demolish the current building and build new on that site; or purchase property on Block 25 and build a brand new city hall.

"It is a choice, you have to choose," Mueske said.

The resolution to pursue Block 25 passed on a 6 to 1 vote.

Block 25 is located between Second and Third Street Streets Southwest, bordered by U.S. Highway 12 and Benson Avenue Southwest. The city already owns half the block as a city parking lot. The rest of the block is made up of the Nelsen and Wodash properties, and each is currently listed for sale at $100,000.

The only dissenting vote was from Councilor Rick Fagerlie, who wondered why the city hadn't shown more interest in purchasing and remodeling the Hardware Hank building.

"I think we are making a big mistake," Fagerlie said.

The Hardware Hank building, located directly behind the City Auditorium on Fifth Street Southwest, is for sale for $400,000.

The City Hall Task Force during its work the past few months had considered that site, but ultimately decided the building did not meet the priorities the task force had set forth.

Only seven of the eight council members participated in the discussion Monday night.

Due to a conflict of interest, Councilor Audrey Nelsen removed herself from the meeting and did not take part in any of the discussions or the vote, as she has during past discussions. Her husband's family owns three parcels on Block 25, the location of former old Nelsen's Laundry, and she and her husband could benefit financially from the sale.

City Attorney Robert Scott said the approved resolution lays out the city charter and state statute requirements regarding conflict of interest and that everything the city was doing followed those requirements.

"Nelsen has satisfied the requirements of the charter," Scott said.

While the approved resolution allows city staff to move forward with the possible acquisition of Block 25 property, any purchase is far from a done deal. The council will have to approve any land purchase before money changes hands.

"Staff, you have your work cut out for you," Calvin said.

The City Hall Task Force since January has been looking at downtown Willmar locations, as directed by the City Council.

"No one questioned being in downtown Willmar at the task force meetings," Schwantes said. She has served as chairwoman of the task force.

The six sites considered since January were the current site, the Hardware Hank, a small parking lot on Becker Avenue and Fifth Street, the Christianson building at Litchfield Avenue and Fifth Street, Block 25 and the Willmar Fire Station.

The task force had seriously looked at the Fire Station as a preferred site, but following a public meeting where concerns about parking and safety arose, the task force decided against recommending the city-owned property adjacent to the Fire Station.

Schwantes during Monday night's discussion touched briefly on the pros and cons of either remodeling the current building or building new on the current site, which were very similar. Neither option requires acquisition costs and the telecommunication line the city needs is already present. However, both options are hindered by inadequate parking, a smaller footprint on which to build and the need to relocate city employees during construction.

The strengths of the Block 25 site are that the city already owns half the block as a parking lot, there is more room to build, the site is a gateway into downtown and it is convenient and accessible. The Nelsen parcels have also been cleared of contamination, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Challenges include having to purchase property, losing the property taxes from the land and the need to install the telecommunication line. There is also the question about whether the city parking lot and the Wodash property on the east side of the block have any soil contamination. This is why the council agreed soil condition testing was needed.

"We don't know what is under our own parking lot," Holland said. "You have to do your own due diligence."

By making a decision to pursue a site for the city hall, the council has not only moved the project forward after months and even years of discussion and debate, but also followed the advice many of the councilors said they received from constituents.

"Their response was as long as it is going to be downtown, pick a location and get it done," Councilor Andrew Plowman said, who said he spoke with anyone he came across over the past few weeks about their views on the city hall. "I've asked a lot of people."

Calvin had a similar experience with citizens.

"What I heard loud and clear was make a decision and move on," Calvin said. "You were elected to make a decision, we're empowering you to make a decision, we expect you to make that decision."