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Block 25 eyed as possible site for Willmar City Hall

Block 25, the former location of Nelsen’s Laundry on Benson Avenue Southwest in downtown Willmar, is a prospective location for a new city hall. The Willmar City Council during a special meeting on April 29 will consider purchasing the property or building on the current site of the Willmar City Offices. Erica Dischino / Tribune

WILLMAR — The public spoke and the Willmar City Hall Task Force listened. Based on the comments received at last week's public input session, and what task force members have been hearing from constituents since then, the Willmar Fire Station property is no longer in consideration as the recommended site for a new city hall.

"This isn't the location, that is very clear," Councilor Shawn Mueske said Tuesday.

Instead, the task force — comprised of council members and city staff — took another look at Block 25, the former location of Nelsen's Laundry on Benson Avenue Southwest. U.S. Highway 12 runs along the northern border of the property, which lies between Third and Fourth Streets Southwest.

"Some of the things we liked about the Fire Station, they do exist here," Councilor Kathy Schwantes said, including high visibility and being downtown.

Two weeks ago, the task force made plans to recommend city-owned property adjacent to the Willmar Fire Station. A public input meeting conducted a week ago raised concerns, and the task force met again Tuesday to discuss locations.

A special meeting of the Willmar City Council on April 29 is still on the schedule, and the task force is hopeful a decision will be made that night by the entire council on whether to purchase Block 25 for a new building or do a city hall project on the current site of the Willmar City Offices.

"I like the idea of the rest of the council being in on the last part of this information, to narrow it down and make that decision," Councilor Julie Asmus said. "I say we go ahead with that decision on the 29th."

The task force directed staff to start working on a contingency plan for the current building that includes putting in a new heating system in both the Willmar City Offices and the City Auditorium. Sean Christensen, Public Works director, said it will cost about $110,000 for both buildings.

Staff will also contact the seller of the Nelsen property about the city having first right of refusal and will talk with Kwik Trip about the company's plan for the old Mills Auto property on the other side of Benson Avenue. City Planner Sarah Swedburg said the last she heard, Kwik Trip plans on building there in 2020.

When the task force analyzed the six potential sites for a city hall — the current site, Fire Station, Christianson PLLP, Fifth and Becker, Block 25 and Hardware Hank — Block 25 was just behind the Fire Station as the best fit. Of the sites that would require the city to purchase land, it has the lowest purchase cost, and the lowest impact on city taxes.

"This is reasonable as far as using the taxpayers' money," Asmus said.

The purchase price for the three parcels of Block 25, where the laundry once stood, is $100,000. When the task force first started the site search process, the land purchase price had not been available and the task force took the site off the list early.

The city already owns the parking lot located directly west of the Nelsen property. City staff will also be approaching the owners of the land to the east of the Nelsen property, to see if they too would be interested in selling to the city.

"We have this whole stretch of property open to us," Schwantes said.

Mueske requested more information be shared with the public about the potential of remodeling the current Willmar City Offices site and what it would cost. He said he has been getting a lot of public comments and questions about that.

"The public needs to be brought along with all of the information, so it becomes very clear to everyone that this choice (building new on a new site) becomes the obvious choice," Mueske said.

City Administrator Ike Holland said a good portion of the public does not understand the issues that are going on with the current building, including the fact it used to be an old medical building, which could bring unexpected challenges to any building project.

"I am not being sarcastic when I am saying they think a new paint job and roof patch, and you're done. Because they don't understand what this building is and how old it is," Holland said.

Planning and Development Director Dave Ramstad said it isn't only the bottom-line costs of the building project the city should be considering, but also the ongoing costs of operating and maintaining the building.

"You may end up paying less per year on a new building than on this one, with the other expenses you might have," Ramstad said.

At the end of the task force meeting, after one last go around the table for comments, most on the task force wondered out loud how Monday's council meeting would go.

"It takes a lot of courage to take that step and make it happen," Mayor Marv Calvin said, though he is hopeful. "I am very confident the right decisions will be made. We are well on our way to having a city hall for the city of Willmar within the next two years. Very positive, very encouraging."