WILLMAR — When all the votes are counted and the results are final, the Willmar City Council will start 2021 with three new members. Candidates are running for the open seats in Wards 1, 3 and 4, where the incumbents — Kathy Schwantes, Fernando Alvarado and Shawn Mueske — have chosen not to run for re-election.
Les Heitke and Michael O'Brien are running for Ward 1 while Justin Ask and Zeke Dahl are seeking election to the seat in Ward 3. The challengers for Ward 4 are Tom Butterfield and Hans Hibma. Incumbent Julie Asmus is running uncontested for the seat in Ward 2.
The candidates have varied backgrounds and also have different views on the proposed Willmar City Hall and Community Center project. One is so against it he tried to sue the mayor while others see it as a need for the city but have various ideas on where it should be located.
Ward 1 — Les Heitke
Heitke, a resident of Willmar for 35 years, has a long history of public service in the city. He was a City Council member for six years before being elected and serving as mayor for 16 years. He has also served on numerous boards and commissions including the Rice Memorial Hospital board of directors, the Rice Hospital Foundation's board and the Kandiyohi County and City Economic Development Commission Operations Board. He also was a board member and president of the League of Minnesota Cities and the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities as well as a board member and second vice president of the National League of Cities.
He has been a licensed psychologist for over 40 years.
Heitke would support the Willmar Ten Investment Group proposal — to build a combined City Hall and Community Center in the old JCPenney portion of the Uptown Willmar mall — if the finances could be worked out.
"I would support this concept at Kandi Mall (Uptown Willmar) pending adequate financing resources and thorough planning which would include a very long-term lease on the building (30- to 50-year lease)," Heitke said.
He would like to see the proposed project include a larger city hall with adequate meeting spaces and moving the WRAC television studios to the new facility.
Funding could come from various sources including the $2 million in local option sales tax funds designated for the Willmar Community Center, city reserve funds and bonding.
"If the City Council wants to move forward, they should act sooner rather than later because projects and construction materials always get more expensive the longer we wait and interest rates are likely to get higher as the economy improves," Heitke said. "A local construction project like this would be very good for local employment and a significant economic boost to revive the Kandi Mall (Uptown Willmar)."
Ward 1 — Michael O'Brien
O'Brien moved to Willmar three years ago and is currently a member of the Willmar School Board, just the latest in a long line of boards and commissions on which he has served over the years, including the New London-Spicer School Board and the Southwest West Central Cooperative board. A veteran who did two tours of duty in Vietnam, he is now a member of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans. O'Brien has also completed the training and now serves on the Willmar Community Emergency Response Team.
O'Brien was a conservation officer in Kandiyohi County for more than 17 years. He also has worked for Willmar Bus Company, transporting special education students to schools outside of the Willmar area.
He believes something needs to be done regarding the Willmar City Hall, especially because of the air quality issues related to mold in the current building.
"In the past I have spent time in this building and then I thought something needed to be done to make it more functional, not to mention the mildew smell that was so obvious to my Vietnam-scarred lungs," O'Brien said. "Now it has been proven that the mold in this building is not fit for human, we cannot leave our employees in this building."
Based on what he has heard, including from area seniors who use the Willmar Community Center and have given their support for the idea, O'Brien likes the Willmar Ten plan. As long as the financial implications can be worked out, he thinks it would be a good option.
"It does appear this structure could house both facilities very nicely, and after all parties agree, this should be a good investment for our community," O'Brien said.
To fund the project, O'Brien mentioned the city's impressive reserve fund.
"Like I say, if the numbers add up and we agree, I think we should move on this, giving local contractors work," O'Brien said.
Ward 3 — Justin Ask
Ask is the lead pastor at Vinje Lutheran Church, a position he has held since 2016 when he and his family moved to Willmar. He has three children with his wife, Seyward.
He is involved with the Willmar Interfaith Network and has worked on many boards including on the Green Lake Lutheran Ministries board of directors.
Ask believes a new Willmar City Hall and Community Center could be a benefit to the city and is intrigued by the Willmar Ten proposal.
"It would be more attractive to citizens of all ages and backgrounds and provide a space in which residents could gather together for a variety of community building purposes," Ask said.
However, finances are also an important issue to Ask, and he supports the current council's decision to pause work on the project while those questions are answered.
"A new city hall and community center is a top priority but must be affordable," Ask said. "Obviously, a loss of tax revenue makes large-scale building projects more difficult to finance, and so while the importance of this project hasn’t decreased, it alters the timetable in which the city can proceed."
Ward 3 — Zeke Dahl
Dahl previously ran for Willmar mayor in 2018. He is originally from San Diego before relocating to Austin, Minnesota, where he unsuccessfully ran for both mayor and a seat on the Austin City Council. Dahl moved to Willmar about three years ago. He worked at Cash Wise Foods before losing his job due to the pandemic.
In 2011 he was convicted of felony check forgery after stealing $8,000 from his grandmother to fund his gambling addiction, according to court records. Then in 2014 he was convicted of a gross misdemeanor for being a felon in possession of a firearm after he handled a handgun during a firearms class. This past January, Dahl was convicted of misdemeanor theft related to check fraud.
Dahl has been a vocal opponent of a new City Hall, even attempting to sue Mayor Marv Calvin to stop the project. The lawsuit was thrown out by a judge. Dahl feels a new building is not needed and is more of an ego project for the mayor and others in the city government. He feels the project would be a burden on taxpayers.
"We pay for all of that stuff," Dahl said.
Dahl would rather see the current building be repaired instead of building something new. He believes it would be cheaper to remodel.
"There is no way that building would be more to fix" than building new, Dahl said.
Ward 4 — Tom Butterfield
Butterfield is a lifelong resident of Willmar and his family has lived in the community for six generations. He has one child whom he is raising as a single father.
Butterfield attended the Willmar Vocational School and then served on the Ridgewater College marketing management program for eight years. Today he is active with the Father's Rights Movement, whose members are interested in issues related to family law and child custody. He ran for the Willmar City Council in 2015.
Butterfield feels a new Willmar City Hall and Community Center should be built on the current site of the Community Center, on Business Highway 71, across from Robbins Island.
"First of all, it will be on existing city property, so no property has to be purchased or taken off the tax rolls," Butterfield said. "Second, there is more than enough property for both entities, including much needed parking for City Hall and the property has ingress and egress from front and back."
He also likes the view from the property, which he said would be incredible and impressive to visitors, businesses and employees.
A second location option that interests Butterfield is the empty lot east of Bremer Bank on Willmar Avenue Southeast.
"Let's do this and get Willmar into the 21st century," Butterfield said.
Ward 4 — Hans Hibma
Hibma grew up on a hobby farm near Hutchinson and has lived in Willmar for nine years. Hibma works for Habitat for Humanity of West Central Minnesota as the Restore manager.
While he agrees that the current city office building is inadequate for today's government needs, he would like to see any new project stay in downtown Willmar.
"I would like to see City Hall located prominently, on either First Street, Trott Avenue, or along Highway 12, simply for the sake of people being able to see that the city is 'here' and not going anywhere," Hibma said. "Having City Hall downtown signals to businesses and citizens alike that the city is invested in downtown and its future development."
If downtown is not an option, Hibma could be in favor of the Willmar Ten proposal.
"In recent years the mall has had a perception of being on a downward trend. The city would join Kohl’s and Harbor Freight in shoring up the vacant and massive anchor spaces in the mall," Hibma said.
What he does not favor is building the facility on the current site of the Willmar Community Center.
"Although the land is already city-owned, and there would presumably be some cost savings building the two spaces on the same site, I see more value investing our resources downtown and building a City Hall that will serve our city for decades to come," Hibma said.