WILLMAR — Unless someone from the public comes forward with an idea and a lot of money to rehabilitate the Willmar Power Plant, Willmar Municipal Utilities plans to move ahead with the structure's demolition.
The Municipal Utilities Commission unanimously voted Monday to demolish the building. The only way the building will be saved is if someone decides to purchase it from the utilities and spend considerable money renovating it.
"If there is anybody in the city interested in that property and wants to come forward with some sort of proposal, we expect them to do so before Sept. 1 of this year," said Justin Mattern, commission chair, at Monday's meeting. "We would expect them to come forward with some earnest money. It would have to be a significant fund, multiple millions."
The power plant hasn't produced electricity since at least 2018 and two of the massive boilers in the plant were on standby only in case of emergency power needs. All four have since gone cold and quiet.
A small rental boiler located behind the power plant was used to run the district heat system from the summer of 2018 until it shut down June 30, 2020.
The city of Willmar purchases the vast majority of its power on the open market, which is much cheaper than producing power at the plant.
The future of the power plant has been in question for years, but the issue rose in importance after the plant was completely shut down following the decommission of the city's district heat system last year. Willmar Municipal Utilities had hoped to wait before acting to tear down the plant, but the environmental studies on the site have shown that is not possible.
The plant is full of asbestos and lead paint, and while currently those toxic substances are in good condition and not a health risk, they will begin to deteriorate, especially because the power plant is an uninsulated and unheated structure, the report said. There is also the risk of the near empty building being a target for urban explorers or vandals.
Regardless of whether the plant is demolished or rehabilitated, it will have to undergo asbestos abatement. This means the vast majority of what makes the building special — the metal work, the windows, the machinery — will all be gone.
During a tour of the plant with the West Central Tribune in January, Willmar Municipal Utilities Facilities and Maintenance Supervisor Kevin Marti said he expects most of the north brick wall will be removed, to create a big enough opening to remove the massive boilers. When all the work is completed, the power plant will be nothing more than a few brick walls.
"It is going to be a shell of itself, with structural issues," Marti said.
According to Wenck Associates, which completed the environmental reports, it will cost approximately $2.7 million to abate and demolish the building. The vast majority of that cost is removing the asbestos and other toxic material. If the asbestos and lead deteriorates, cleanup costs will be even more and the project more difficult.
During Monday's meeting, new Commissioner Kerry Johnson asked if there was any interest in rehabilitating the plant.
General Manger John Harren said at first there were a few people showing interest. But, after walking through the plant and understanding what it would take to bring such a building up to code, let alone remodel it into a commercial venture, that interest has waned.
"At this point in time, we are not aware of anyone interested in renovating that building," Harren said.
The Willmar City Council will have the final decision on whether the plant is torn down. After a joint meeting last week between the council and the Utilities Commission, the consensus was to tear it down, Mattern said Monday. The final action on the plant will take place at an upcoming council meeting.
Prior to tearing the plant down, Willmar Municipal Utilities must address the downtown substation, which is spread out over a three-block area, including in the power plant, said Jeron Smith, staff electrical engineer. Inside the plant there are still control switches and infrastructure used in the distribution of electricity in a portion of the city.
The substation project would reconstruct the downtown substation, to move all the equipment into one location. A contract with DGR Engineering was approved Monday for engineering services for the project.
The entire project is estimated to cost around $5.3 million, with the DGR contract coming in at $468,000. The hope is to complete the substation work and tear down the plant next year.
"We hope to go as quickly as we can," said Smith.