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Downtown Willmar streetscape project to be redesigned to meet grant fund parameters

Due to concerns from the Department of Employment and Economic Development about whether certain aspects of the proposed streetscape project in downtown Willmar could be covered by $400,000 in Small Cities grant funds, city Planning and Development Department staff plan to start over on the project. The project will still use the grant money, but will focus on a design that requires less heavy construction like the proposed curb bump-outs.

122421.N.WCT.WillmarStreetscapeRedo
The streetscape project that was to take place in the intersection of Fourth Street Southwest and Litchfield Avenue Southwest in downtown Willmar is having to be completely redone after push back from the Department of Employment and Economic Development, which is providing the grant funds for the work. Intersection photo from October 11, 2021. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — The streetscape project being proposed for the intersection of Litchfield Avenue and Fourth Street Southwest in downtown Willmar has hit a rather large snag. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, which administers the Small Cities grant program from which most of the funding is coming, has raised serious concerns about the plan and whether it will fund a major aspect of the project.

The city was awarded a $750,000 grant from the program , with $400,000 earmarked for the streetscape project. The remaining $350,000 is being used for renovations at the Lakeview Apartment building.

While the city's Small Cities grant application did include pedestrian crossing bump-outs as part of the downtown project , once the preliminary design work was done, it became evident the bump-outs — a curb extension into the parking late to reduce the crossing distance for pedestrians — would require significant road and stormwater work. That is work DEED now doesn't believe is eligible for grant funds, according to Justice Walker, Willmar Planning and Development director.

"I think we're having a difference between theory and application," Walker said Wednesday in an interview with the West Central Tribune.

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Justice  Walker Willmar Planning Development
Justice Walker

In conversations with DEED over the last few weeks, along with other city staff and the Kandiyohi County Housing and Redevelopment Authority, which is heading the Lakeview project, Walker said it became clear the city was going to have to pay a significant amount of money to construct the streetscape project as currently designed.

"We were going to have to eat $100,000," just for the stormwater work, Walker said.

In late November, the Willmar City Council had approved the preliminary design for the project and hired Bolton & Menk to complete the final design documents. Walker said that is all now going to change. At an upcoming City Council meeting, the contract is to be canceled and the design work will be done in-house by city staff, he said.

"The city is going to execute, to the best of its ability, a streetscape plan," Walker said.

Walker said he actually agrees with DEED in that subterranean street and stormwater work is not streetscape. His vision includes more surface renovations, such as trees, seating areas and permanent installations like a clock. And, unlike the proposed plan which focused on only one intersection, Walker believes the city will be able to spread the wealth throughout the downtown area. When you remove street work from the equation, the money spreads a lot farther, he said.

"We're going to be very aggressive and innovative," Walker said.

The team at the city won't have a whole lot of time to get a new design nailed down. The money from the Small Cities grant has to be spent by September 2022. This means the final design will need to be done around spring, so the city can go out for bids and hire contractors if needed.

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"It is going to be a large undertaking," Walker said.

For the past several years, the city and community groups have been working on updating downtown for the modern age. Programs such as Willmar Main Street and the Renaissance Zone have started that change. The streetscape project will add to it.

"This is one part of revitalizing downtown," Walker said.

No blame for the change in the project is being laid at anyone's feet, Walker said, just that the communication between the different parties probably could have been better. The good news is the city is not at risk of losing the grant and downtown will still get its streetscape improvements. While having to start the project from scratch is an unfortunate setback, Walker is optimistic downtown Willmar will benefit.

"It will be a much better outcome," Walker said.

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What was the final concept art for the downtown Willmar streetscape project included seats, lights, landscaping and the pedestrian bumpouts. It was those bumpouts, and the major construction they required, that had DEED worried, Walker said. Contributed / City of Willmar, Bolton & Menk

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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