WILLMAR — The Willmar 10 Investment Group feels its proposal to construct a new city hall and community center in the old JCPenney wing at Uptown Willmar could be an opportunity for the city to complete a project that lives up to its mission statement and community values.

According to Dion Warne, who presented the plan to the Willmar City Council Monday night, the project could be fiscally responsible, deliver excellent service to residents, while showing visionary leadership and planning.

"We thought it might be the ticket for an opportunity," Warne said.

The City Council, after hearing the presentation and discussing it, decided it deserved a more thorough look and gave its permission for city staff to explore the proposal with the Willmar 10. The council is also looking for answers to some important questions, especially just how much such a project would cost and how the city would be able to pay for it.

"It is going to come down to price for me," said Councilor Rick Fagerlie.

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The Willmar 10 proposition would have the investment group purchase the 54,000-square-foot JCPenney site from the mall owner, RockStep Capital. The site would then become an independent tax parcel, no longer legally part of the mall. Willmar 10 would then manage the construction of the project, with significant city input, especially regarding design. After the project is completed the city would eventually purchase the finished dual facility from Willmar 10, probably through some sort of lease-to-own agreement.

Warne said to get a better idea of costs, it is important for the development group and the city to work together moving forward. Willmar 10 feels it could probably deliver the project for 20 percent less than the city's working estimate of $10.5 million.

"If we had the opportunity to work with you, with city staff, to work through the building side of and the legality of the lease-to-purchase, we could come to a number and you would know for sure if it would work or not," Warne said.

A long list of positives about the plan were raised at the council meeting. The JCPenney site would offer plenty of space for both the community center and city hall, along with bringing significant upgrades and improvements to the east side of the mall, facing Fifth Street Southeast. One hope is the project would spur additional economic development along that corridor.

"This is a project, we believe, just by building the city hall and community center there, that in itself would spur economic development there," Warne said.

The location could also bring about increased community usage of the community center, not only because the facility could be designed to offer more activities and programming, but due to its location in what has become the center of the city. It would also be close to not only the Willmar Middle School, but not too far from Willmar's three elementary buildings.

The Willmar Senior Club, one of the main stakeholders in the Willmar Community Center, has already given its approval of the mall plan. Councilor Julie Asmus, who serves on both the city hall and community center task forces, said she had gotten good feedback from seniors who like the idea of more space along with easier access to the facility.

"They are in favor of the new location," Asmus said. In addition, both task force groups have also given their approval of moving on with the Willmar 10 proposal.

Concerns raised about the concept, beyond the financial unknowns, include how moving forward with this proposal would mean turning away from decisions already made. The idea to build a new city hall has been percolating for years and the most recent push to move the project on, resulted in the City Council deciding to build a joint city hall and community center on the site of the current center on Business Highway 71 North. It came close to hiring an architect and construction manager. The council paused any additional work on the project back in May, due to financial concerns, caused in part by the coronavirus pandemic.

"It opens up discussions again," said Councilor Kathy Schwantes.

While the motion approved by the council allows staff to explore the Willmar 10 option, it in no way approves the project or the spending of any funds, beyond staff time. There will be many additional decision points along the way, as well as wanting to gather public feedback.

"This is not a 'we are going forward', this is a 'let's look at this opportunity and see how we might engage it'," said Councilor Audrey Nelsen.

Councilor Andrew Plowman said he believes public transparency will be an important part of this project. With segments of the population harboring a mistrust of government and big business, he feels it will be imperative for information, including how much it will cost and how that money will be spent, to be available to the public, to help grow public support for the project.

"I believe this can be done and it can also be done correctly and with good justice to our taxpaying citizens in terms of transparency," Plowman said.