Design Center envisions big projects: All that's needed now is the money

WILLMAR -- The Willmar Design Center envisions some big projects to reinvigorate the downtown area. All that's needed now is the money to carry out those projects. The projects are succinctly and colorfully described in the Design Center's recent...

WILLMAR -- The Willmar Design Center envisions some big projects to reinvigorate the downtown area.

All that's needed now is the money to carry out those projects.

The projects are succinctly and colorfully described in the Design Center's recently completed "Visioneer,'' which was presented to the Willmar City Council last week.

"You asked us for a plan so you know what the money would be spent on, and we've now developed this plan and we will move ahead with it,'' Design Center project coordinator Beverly Dougherty told council members.

The project ideas were developed during the past two years with the assistance of the Minnesota Design Team, comments from the public, the Design Center's part-time urban planner, and committee members and volunteers.


The Design Center envisions restoring the east and west accesses to downtown on Litchfield Avenue Southwest; establishing a public commons on a portion of the parking lot east of the library; improvements on First Street; and connecting the trail system with a pedestrian bridge over the railroad yard.

In an interview, Dougherty said these kinds of investments take years, not months, but are quite modest public investments to promote private investment in downtown and the rest of Willmar.

"With a strong downtown, the whole Willmar area improves economically, and it's a great small city that attracts new residents and businesses,'' she said.

Dougherty asked the council to budget some funds in the future, but she knows funding will also be needed from other sources.

"What we see is by the city providing our operating budget ... that we can now show the city's support to go after other funds,'' said Dougherty.

The Design Center is looking at federal and state grants and is working with other funding sources.

"We probably have five or six leads to money for these various four projects that will become the basis of 2007's efforts,'' she said.

City Administrator Michael Schmit sees the Visioneer as a long-term and comprehensive improvement program. With that in mind, the funding -- regardless of its sources -- will have to come over a period of time.


In the short term, he said the city has budgeted for additional downtown amenities such as benches, bicycle racks and trash receptacles in 2007. But he said major infrastructure and other types of improvements are not typically funded out of a city's general fund.

"When you look at that Visioneer, I see some similarities to redevelopment projects and those are big-ticket items that take some time not only planning but putting together the financing resources, and it's something that's done over a longer period of time,'' said Schmit.

Besides requesting funding for projects, Dougherty asked how the Visioneer would be included in the city's updated comprehensive plan.

"Anyone who comes to Willmar or downtown can see what's going on and take the Visioneer and see what the plan is and perhaps make their plan according to what they see and what the people and the city have decided is important,'' said Dougherty.

Bruce Peterson, director of planning and development services for the city, suggests the Visioneer be an attachment to the comprehensive plan, which is being updated. The plan sets out policy for local development and is the legal basis for the zoning ordinance.

"It's my intent that it be included as a concept guide for the downtown unless the Planning Commission and the council would go through a process to formally adopt it with the same force of law as the comprehensive plan,'' he said.

"I would see that it would be a guide but would not carry the force of law.''

Peterson was asked what's needed to carry out the proposals.


"If they want to pursue some of these things and they have some sources of financing, I would anticipate they'd come back and work through the council committee process,'' Peterson said.

"Unless the council would commit to it through the capital process, we're not going to take the lead on something if we don't have the financing to accomplish it.''

Steve Renquist, director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, said the Design Center is attempting to capture customer focus after years of what he calls an unintentional lack of focus on the downtown.

"With the Design Center, we're trying to determine ... what causes people to come to an area and what will motivate them to stay in that area. We've basically determined what has not worked, and what hasn't worked has left us with a downtown that though it does not need rehabilitation, it needs reinvigoration,'' Renquist told the council.

"It's the position of the Economic Development Commission -- that should we be able to focus on the downtown area in a way that the Willmar Design Center is trying to do in its collaborative approach -- that it will be most helpful to the city and the entire county,'' he said.

For more on the plan, see

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