WILLMAR — The vision of the city of Willmar to turn Robbins Island Regional Park into a go-to destination for the area took a big step forward this week with the opening of the newly constructed four-season shelter.

Located just off the Foot Lake beach, the structure will provide needed community space at the park, no matter the weather.

"Your eyes go to this. It is a huge focal point," said Rob Baumgarn, Willmar Parks and Recreation director.

The approximately 3,000-square-foot facility includes a large community room, public restrooms and has both heating and air conditioning. This will allow it to be rented year-round for public and private events. The shelter already hosted its first event last weekend. The shelter, which can hold about 100 people, can be rented through Parks and Rec.

"These buildings are for the community to use," Baumgarn said.

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While the community room will be locked when not rented, the restrooms can be accessed through doors on the building's north side and will be available for public use.

The outside of the shelter is just as important as what is inside. Concrete walkways, patios and covered seating areas connect the shelter to the rest of the park, providing a centralized place for families and friends to gather. The lake is visible from many different vantage points and large windows in the shelter continue those views inside.

"Location is huge," Baumgarn said. "With the beach and all the other things that happen out here."

The shelter's west door opens right out toward the Foot Lake beach, the wood fishing pier and the walking path.

"It is amazing just how many people are walking past on the paths or fishing, with the dock out there," Baumgarn said.

At an open house at the shelter on Tuesday, Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin shared his appreciation for the work that was done.

"Kudos to staff for their visionary leadership as they were preparing this as a four-season facility," Calvin said.

He said he especially likes the outdoor picnic area and fishing pier nearby.

"It truly makes this a multigenerational facility where parents and grandparents can be watching their children swimming and fishing and it can be done in a nice, safe environment," Calvin said.

It took about 10 months and more than $1 million to complete construction on the shelter. Ram Buildings Inc., of Winsted, was the general contractor on the project.

While it took less than a year to build the shelter, the city had been working on the project for more than four years.

A Legacy Grant through the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in the amount of $606,000 was awarded to the city in late 2015 to help fund the project, which at first included not only the shelter but a wetland interpretive boardwalk.

In December 2018 the grant was amended to remove the boardwalk and have all the grant money go toward the shelter.

Even then, the shelter cost more than double what was originally estimated in the grant application, and the city of Willmar ended up spending an additional $464,000 on the project.

Though the costs were high, Baumgarn and Curt Hein, Willmar Public Works project manager, said they believe it is money well-spent and the shelter will be an important piece of Robbins Island.

"It was needed out here," Hein said.

The remaining shelters at Robbins Island, such as the Guri Endresen shelter, are also in need of upgrades. Discussions on which direction to go with the remaining shelters have been taking place at various boards and committees.

"Guri needs remodeling. If we are going to keep it, we need to remodel it," Hein said.

Upcoming improvements at Robbins Island include the local option sales tax-funded project to bring new hard surfaces in the form of a new road and parking lots to the island.

As work continues at Robbins Island, the new four-season shelter is an example of what the city has been achieving at the park and hopes to continue into the future.

"This is a beautiful facility and it should be a fantastic asset for our community members to use," said City Councilor Kathy Schwantes. "A lot of work and effort went into it, I appreciate the work the committee did."