WILLMAR — Two years after voters in Willmar approved a half-of-a-percent increase of the city's sales tax to fund six community projects, the plans for two of those projects were presented to the public during two virtual meetings.
Members of the Invest in Willmar Local Option Sales Tax board, along with representatives from the related subcommittees, on Feb. 3 presented the proposed plans for the recreation fields and the recreation and event center, both to be constructed at the Willmar Civic Center.
Members of the public were able to view a livestream of both meetings on WRAC-TV or the city's website and could call in with questions and comments. Videos of both presentations are posted on the city of Willmar's YouTube channel and also available on wctrib.com.
The first presentation was on the recreation fields, designed by Widseth Engineers.
The proposed plan, presented by Widseth architect Dana Hlebichuk, includes two new synthetic turf fields with lights on the north side of the Civic Center site and a four-field softball complex on the south. The softball fields will include chain dugouts, irrigation, a new concession building, bullpens and batters boxes.
The estimated budget for construction is $4.5 million. The taxpayer-approved budget is $6 million, but about 20 percent of that is going toward contingency and soft costs such as architect fees.
What is not included are a bubble dome over one of the turf fields, scoreboards, bleachers, running track, extra parking at the fields or lights at the softball complex. All of those will have to be future projects and most likely not funded through the sales tax. If there is sales tax funding left over after the initial project, the recreation field subcommittee would like to focus on the dome and increased parking.
Recreation and event center
The second presentation was on the recreation and event center, to be connected to the current Willmar Civic Center.
The project was designed by LSE Architects. The estimated construction budget for the nearly 25,000-square-foot addition is approaching $8 million. Voters approved a total project budget of $10 million, but like the fields, about 20 percent must be set aside for other costs beyond construction.
The main portion of the project will be two large courts that can be used both for recreation — such as pickleball, tennis and basketball — but also dry floor events such as large conventions. Also included in the plans are a new covered entry for the Civic Center, a children's playroom, meeting room, changing rooms, limited bleachers for spectators, a catering kitchen and an outdoor event courtyard.
The building will be a precast constructed building, with metal panel accents and translucent wall panels to let in natural light.
"We can do a lot of things with it," said LSE architect Chris Laabs, regarding the precast walls, including color and texture. "There are a ton of opportunities that this presents as well as being a really robust material that will last a really long time."
Not included in the proposed project is a covered outdoor skating rink or new locker rooms.
"The funding, unfortunately, just wasn't there," said Gretchen Otness, chair of the recreation and event center subcommittee.
Funding constraints and competition
Lack of funding and the higher-than-expected costs of the projects have been an issue for most of the local option sales tax projects.
Nick Peterson, who called into the meeting, questioned why the committee focused on the recreational courts, when similar facilities already exist in the city, instead of some of the other ideas that were originally presented to the voters, such as the ice rink.
"From a voter's standpoint, we were sold a bill of goods, that there were going to be certain things included in this Invest in Willmar project, and it has clearly fallen well short of what voters' expectations were," Peterson said.
Rob Baumgarn, Willmar Parks and Recreation director, said he understands Peterson's point and wishes the budgets would stretch to cover everything.
"We wish we could get everything that was voted on," Baumgarn said. "Some of it has to do with the costs, some soft costs that maybe were not anticipated, and the projects are big and they are going to cost some dollars do it."
Willmar City Councilor Julie Asmus added that the passage of time is also a factor in the increasing costs since projects get more expensive with every year that passes.
"Time clicks by and the costs still keep going up. We are running into this with all of our projects," Asmus said.
There was also public concern of the recreation and event center competing against businesses and nonprofits that already offer event space. Baumgarn said the new space would allow Parks and Recreation to hold many of its youth and adult programming without having to rely on outside facilities.
"It gives us a lot more freedom," Baumgarn said.
The larger event space would also make it possible for the Willmar Lakes Area Convention & Visitors Bureau to work on bringing large-scale events to the city, which would benefit other commercial businesses such as restaurants and hotels.
"There are so many opportunities this event center can bring to our community. It will complement our existing facilities in our area," said Beth Fischer, Convention & Visitors Bureau director.
The next step for the projects is for them to be approved by several bodies. The plans will work their way through the Invest in Willmar Board, the Parks and Recreation Board and the Willmar City Council Public Works Committee before finally landing in front of the full City Council.
If the council gives final approval, the projects will then go out to bid, with the hope that construction will begin on both projects this spring. If everything goes to plan, construction should be completed by the end of 2021 or spring 2022.