WILLMAR — As the largest of the six Invest in Willmar Local Option Sales Tax projects, the recreation and event center was probably always going to be the most challenging to create.

The wish list for the estimated $10 million project had included space for recreation, space for events, an indoor play area for kids, new locker rooms, meeting spaces and a covered outdoor ice rink.

"Anyone who voted for this project, they have a specific piece they are most interested in," said Gretchen Otness, chair of the recreation and event center subcommittee, at the Feb. 10 meeting of the Invest in Willmar Board. "It is a very multifaceted project."

As the months passed, it became apparent that $10 million wasn't enough and the subcommittee had to create a project that did the most with the budget available. The plan the subcommittee presented to the board Feb. 10 for approval includes a 25,000-square-foot recreation and event center, meeting space, a playroom for kids but no new locker rooms and no covered ice rink to be constructed at the Willmar Civic Center.

"The $10 million price point doesn't cut it for what was all wanted in this project," Otness said. "We have done everything we can to make sure every dollar is going to be utilized to the best of our ability."

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While the board approved the plan, the vote was a close 4 to 3, with several board members raising questions and concerns.

"I really like the looks of it. But, sometimes you come up with questions during the process that you didn't have before," said board member Bob Poe, who in the end did vote to approve the plan for the center.

One question was whether Willmar needs 25,000 square feet of recreation and event center space, especially if the City Council still plans on constructing a new community center.

There have been public concerns about competing with other event spaces in the city and even the YMCA as a recreation facility.

Matt Dawson, chair of the board, asked if there are large-scale events out there that would come to Willmar if such a large convention space was available.

"I really believe we need to make sure, if we deliver this to the council, exactly what is going to be programmed out there," Dawson said.

Dawson asked if it would be possible to reduce the size of the center to around 15,000 square feet and use the savings to construct the ice rink and maybe even the bubble dome over one of the new recreation fields. Dawson and others said they have heard from sports groups disappointed about what is not included in the projects.

"I just want to reach as many people as we can," Dawson said.

Otness said the recreation and event center subcommittee has representation from all the ice sports groups along with the Convention & Visitors Bureau in Willmar. All signed off on the project as presented.

In regard to competing against the YMCA, Otness said she has no idea when that started to be an issue.

"That was never brought up as a concern in the last two years," Otness said. "That is a very new issue that has come out of somewhere."

Another concern is how the city will pay to operate the center once it is built. City Councilor Audrey Nelsen especially worries about it, due to the fact the city is also talking about building and operating a new city hall and community center.

"This hasn't been a normal year. Do we know we are going to get our (local government aid) this year? Do we know if we are going to have to lay people off? Are we going to choose between building a city hall or building an event center, or are we going to do both?" Nelsen asked, sharing some of her worries. "All I am asking for are the figures for us to make an informed decision."

While operation costs are a worry for some, others on the board and from the city feel residents knew when they voted to approve the sales tax that operation costs would be coming.

City Administrator Brian Gramentz, who was formerly the city manager in New Ulm, said the same worries arose when a large recreation facility was built in New Ulm. The city ended up having to raise taxes significantly to operate it, and there was little pushback from the residents.

There is also the hope that Willmar will end up collecting more in sales tax revenue from more people visiting the city to attend events at the new facilities.

"Maybe our fears are worse than reality," Gramentz said. "Everybody expects costs to go up because we are being provided an item."

In the end, the plan for the center was approved, though Dawson, Nelsen and Denis Anderson voted against it. Those voting for the plan were board members Poe, Jon Konold, Tony Amon and Mary Sawatzky.

"It is our job as community leaders and council men and women to continue that process, to continue to improve our community," Konold said.

The next step for the recreation and event center plan — and the plan for the new recreation fields approved unanimously by the Invest in Willmar board at the same meeting — is to be presented to the Willmar Parks and Recreation Board for its approval. The final stop will be the Willmar City Council, which will also have to make the decisions on bonding to build the project and how to fund operations.

"They are the gatekeepers of the projects," Gramentz said. "But, they have to have a project in their hands before they can gate-keep, before they can delay, (or) put it forward."

For related stories, see Invest in Willmar or Local Option Sales Tax.

About the sales tax

The Invest in Willmar Local Option Sales Tax approved by voters went into effect on Oct. 1, 2019. The 0.5 percent increase in the Willmar sales tax is to last 13 years or until $30 million in revenue has been collected, whichever comes first.

The projects and budgets are as follows:

  • Recreation and Event Center — $10 million
  • Recreation Fields — $6 million
  • Robbins Island Regional Park — $3 million (under construction)
  • Swansson Field Regional Park — $2 million
  • Willmar Community Center — $2 million
  • Stormwater improvements — $7 million