WILLMAR — There is a new, but somewhat familiar, option on the table for the Willmar City Hall and Community Center project — Uptown Willmar, formerly known as the Kandi Mall.
The Willmar 10 Investors, made up of local property investors, presented the concept Wednesday to the joint Willmar City Hall and Community Center Task Force.
"We come to you with an idea," said Dion Warne, a member of Willmar 10 Investors and senior vice president at Home State Bank.
The proposed concept would take the soon-to-be empty JCPenney site at the mall, approximately 52,000 square feet, and turn it into a combined city hall and community center.
"We feel it would work well," Warne said.
While details still need to be worked out, the proposal has Willmar 10 purchasing the site from RockStep Capital, which owns Uptown Willmar, and constructing the project. The city would eventually purchase the completed facility from Willmar 10, perhaps through a lease-to-own agreement.
In wanting to be as open and transparent as possible, Warne disclosed that he and two other Willmar 10 partners have financial shares in Uptown Willmar, approximately 1.5 percent of the mall's total.
"This project would be much larger than any investment we have in the mall," Warne said.
The Willmar 10 proposal is the second time the city has received an overture to bring the city hall-community center to the mall. The original concept had been for the city to purchase or lease the Herberger's property, but it was never seriously considered by the task force.
Willmar 10 is so confident it has already signed a letter of intent with RockStep Capital to purchase the JCPenney location, along with 3 to 4 acres of land. The presentation Wednesday was a chance for Willmar 10 to see if the task force is interested in moving forward with the project.
"Willmar 10, we are really driven on this deal, because we see this as a great solution," Warne said. "We see it as a good use of space, a good use of resources."
In a show of hands vote Wednesday, the vast majority of the task force wanted to move forward with this new proposition at the mall, at least in these early planning stages. While the mall was never a serious contender at past task force meetings, Jan Dahl, who serves on the community center group, said this is an idea that could be successful.
"We have tossed around this area for quite a while. This came to our minds," Dahl said. "This is like a win-win."
Concept art created by Terwisscha Construction Inc. showed possible design features for the facility including a shared common space with a skylight, windows on at least two sides of the building, green space outside and enough room to bring in more programming for the community center.
"There is enough square footage there to put anything you want in there," Warne said.
The city would be heavily involved in the design of the facility, to create something that not only fits the city's current needs, but fulfills some wishes as well.
"We are going to build it how you want it," Warne said.
How much such a project would cost is still an unknown. The city had been budgeting around $10.5 million for the project, with $2 million coming from the local option sales tax for community center improvements.
"Where do the cost savings come in?" asked City Councilor Kathy Schwantes, who has been heading the task force.
Kelly Terwisscha, CEO of Terwisscha Construction, said he believes the Uptown Willmar plan could cost less than building from scratch. One major savings would be not having to prepare the site for construction.
"The site development is done," Terwisscha said.
City Councilor Audrey Nelsen, also a task force member, had a concern about moving forward with a new plan without knowing how much it would cost the city. The City Council had paused all work on the city hall and community center project because of financial concerns.
"That is something that we should be looking at before we go forward with this," Nelsen said. "Can we afford to move forward with this?"
Warne said all the financial and legal questions would be ironed out and answered before any construction would start.
"We are not going to build this and hope you are going to buy it," Warne said.
The possibility of building a new city hall has been an issue for years. It took the City Hall Task Force and the City Council over a year to finally decide to build a joint city hall and community center project on the current site of the community center. However, this new offer could throw all that work out the window.
"Is this a serious contender that we are willing to upset the decision already made?" Schwantes asked.
The length of time it has taken for any movement to be made on the project is starting to wear on those who support constructing a new city hall.
"I am really disappointed we keep kicking the can down the road," said Ken Behm, Willmar business owner and partner in Willmar 10. "I am disappointed and frustrated that we haven't made more progress."
Warne said Willmar 10 is very respectful of all the work the tasks forces and committees have done over the years, but feel this possibility at Uptown Willmar could be the correct answer.
"If there is an opportunity to do something, to make the whole mall area spark up, why not give this a try," Warne said.