WILLMAR — If a new city hall is to be built in Willmar, signs are indicating it will not be downtown. The Willmar City Hall Task Force, meeting Tuesday for the first time since May, came to a consensus that locating a city hall downtown does not seem to be a viable option.
"I think we have done a valiant effort trying to stay downtown, but I think our downtown options have been explored and we have exhausted them," Mayor Marv Calvin said. "We need to expand our horizons, we need to look at something different. As painful as that is to say."
Since the first meeting in January, the task force — comprised of council members and city staff — has focused on potential sites within downtown Willmar. Those sites were the current site of the Willmar City Offices, the former Hardware Hank building, a small parking lot on Becker Avenue and Fifth Street Southwest, the Christianson building at Litchfield Avenue and Fifth Street Southwest, Block 25 — between Second and Third Streets Southwest, bordered by U.S. Highway 12 and Benson Avenue Southwest — and city-owned property adjacent to the Willmar Fire Station. The only two sites ever seriously considered by the task force were the Fire Station property and Block 25.
The Fire Station site later was taken out of contention due to concerns raised by the public and Fire Department.
Block 25, site of the former Nelsen's Laundry, was recommended to the council as a site. The council met in a closed session May 20 regarding a possible purchase, but did not act on it. Former city administrator Ike Holland said at the time the city would be looking at other site options.
Following Tuesday's task force meeting, Calvin said the reasons why the city is looking at other options will be made public once the council officially acts on Block 25 at a future council meeting. There is still a council motion on the books to pursue the purchase of Block 25, so the council will have to rescind it before approving another site.
No one at the task force thought remodeling or building new on the current site was a good option due to costs, site size and having to relocate staff during construction.
Once the task force came to a consensus to look outside of downtown, attention turned to possible greater Willmar locations. The location of the Willmar Community Center on Business Highway 71, across from Robbins Island, quickly rose to the top. So much so that the task force directed staff to explore the possibility of building a joint city hall and community center on that site before the task force seriously looks at any other options.
"I would investigate this site first," said Planning and Development Services Director David Ramstad.
The city owns five acres on the site, so there would be no land acquisition costs and there is plenty of room for such a structure. It is also a highly visible location and would keep the Community Center where it is.
There is $2 million in the local option sales tax for a Community Center project, and the task force feels merging a new city hall and the Willmar Community Center together would create a better finished product.
"We could have a much more substantial building there," said City Councilor Shawn Mueske. "Everything about this site makes sense."
The task force wants to be cautious and isn't slamming the door on other possibilities or public input on the project. City staff will take a more in-depth look at the site, as well as speak to contractors about what they think the possibilities are for a merged project. The task force will next meet in a couple of weeks to discuss what was uncovered.
"This might be a diamond in the rough we happened to fall upon," City Councilor Fernando Alvarado said.