WILLMAR — The Invest in Willmar Recreation and Event Center, along with the recreational fields, will have to wait a little while longer for their day in front of the Willmar City Council.

The council's Public Works and Public Safety Committee, on Thursday, voted to table resolutions approving the plans and authorizing the advertisement of bids to find contractors to construct them. This means it will probably be at least March 15 before the council considers giving the projects their final approvals, unless a special Public Works meeting is held prior to the March 1 meeting.

Recreational and Event Center

The motion to table the Recreational and Event Center passed 3 to 1, with Councilors Audrey Nelsen, Julie Asmus and Andrew Plowman voting to approve. Councilor Justin Ask voted against it.

The project plans, with a $10 million total budget, include a 25,000 square foot recreation and event space, meeting rooms, a child playroom and a catering kitchen. The new center will be connected to the Willmar Civic Center.

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Concerns from the committee included the unknown operational costs of the center and the lack of an outdoor covered ice rink in the project.

"This isn't a motion against the project or for the project, nothing like that," Plowman said, but just the committee doing its due diligence. "So it (the plans) can go to the council with a unanimous committee."

Rob Baumgarn, Willmar Parks and Recreation Director, said estimated operational costs and potential revenue opportunities for the center will be available by sometime next week. Utilities costs are estimated to be over $4,000 per month.

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Invest in Willmar

Local Option Sales Tax

Gretchen Otness, the chair of the Invest in Willmar Rec and Event Center Subcommittee, who were in control of designing the project, was frustrated over the concerns being raised. She said the subcommittee did the best it could, creating a project that efficiently used the budget allotted to it. After two years of discussion and planning, it made sense to build the largest portion of the project first and have the smaller pieces, including the ice rink, be future projects.

She also made it clear the budget for the project was not adequate for what the public might be hoping for.

"The money allotted for this project was poorly done; $10 million doesn't even come close to what we need to get everything they wanted us to give them," Otness said. "It is just not going to happen. It is pure dollars and cents."

Recreation Fields

The motion to table the recreation fields wasn't over operational costs, but unfished business regarding storm water and a land transfer between the city and Willmar Public Schools.

"I would like to see all these things dealt with, so the council can make a clear decision to move forward," said City Administrator Brian Gramentz.

The project includes the construction of two synthetic turf fields located north of the Civic Center and a softball complex with four fields south of the Civic Center. The budget is $6 million.

The motion was approved unanimously by the committee.

Extending the sales tax

The council Finance Committee also met on Thursday talked about the possibility of extending the local option sales tax, which will require state legislature approval.

The tax will sunset when $30 million is raised or 13 years has passed, which ever comes first. So far, tax revenue has been lower than the city had expected, on average bringing in $180,000 a month instead of $250,000. The tax will expire in 2033.

"We know we are not going to collect $30 million," Gramentz said.

Other cities with local option sales taxes and the League of Minnesota Cities are already discussing going to the state legislature to see if those taxes could be extended due to the coronavirus. Wilmar city staff want city council approval to continue participating in those talks.

"I encourage we participate and make a decision at a later date if you want to put your name on a bill," Gramentz said.

The committee recommended the council allow the city to do just that.

"I am absolutely in favor of approaching the legislature to extend the time to try and get the maximum funds we can, to provide the amenities to the citizens they voted for and are expecting to come out of the local option sales tax," Asmus said.

The only vote against was Nelsen, who worries now is not the right time to try an extend a tax on taxpayers. She also doesn't want to hurt the chances of other cities trying to get a sales tax passed.

"What kind of message are we sending, both to our community and the state?" Nelsen asked.

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