WILLMAR — While the Willmar City Council, at Monday's council meeting, unanimously approved the plans and specifications for the Recreation and Events Center and athletic fields to be constructed at the Willmar Civic Center, there was still angst over whether the city can even afford to do the projects.
Approval of the plans for the Invest in Willmar local option sales tax projects had stalled, in part over questions about the operational costs for the projects.
Prior to the regular meeting, the council met in a special session to discuss how it could pay for a proposed City Hall and Willmar Community Center project. Those talks also included how the city would fund and operate the sales tax projects as well.
"The financial information shared may not lend itself to being able to do everything," said Councilor Audrey Nelsen. "Are we ready to make this decision, in light of what we talked about before."
Despite that unease, the council approved the plans and is allowing the city to start the process of advertising for bids for the events center and the athletic fields. The votes to approve the plans and go out for bids were unanimous at 7-0, with Councilor Rick Fagerlie absent from the proceedings.
"I feel like we can go ahead and get some bids," said Councilor Julie Asmus.
The Recreation and Events Center plans include two full-size gyms that will be lined for basketball, tennis, volleyball and pickleball. The courts can also be used for dry floor events, such as conventions, dinners and trade shows. The project also has meeting rooms, a children's playroom, changing and restrooms and a warming kitchen for bringing food to the center.
"We are really proud of it," said Gretchen Otness, chairperson of the Recreation and Events Center subcommittee.
The athletic fields project calls for two synthetic turf fields on the north side of the Willmar Civic Center for sports such as soccer and football. The fields will also have lights.
Future projects on the site could include a bubble dome, nine-lane track, bleachers and parking lots.
On the south side of the Civic Center, a four-field softball complex is also part of the project going out for bids. That complex would include dugouts and a concession/restroom building.
Future projects include lights and scoreboards.
"We'll have some nice looking ballfields out there," said Rob Baumgarn, Willmar Parks and Recreation director.
The total budget for the Recreation and Events Center, is $10 million, with the athletic fields' budget sitting at $6 million. The projects are to be financed using the 0.5 percent increase in the city's sale tax approved by the voters in 2018. The city will have to bond to construct the projects. The bond payments will be made using tax revenue.
The hope is finding out exact costs of these projects will help the council decide whether the city can afford them at all.
"Let's find out how much these projects are going to cost and prioritize them from there," said Councilor Justin Ask.
In a presentation to the Public Works and Public Safety committee last week, Baumgarn gave a presentation on the estimated operational costs for several sales tax projects — Robbins Island, Swansson Field, the Rec and Events Center and the athletic fields. The center alone could cost the city up to $212,000 a year to operate while bringing in around $130,000 a year in revenue.
The council also unanimously approved a required land transfer agreement between the city and Willmar Public Schools, as well as the athletic fields use agreement between the two parties. The council conducted a closed session to discuss the land transfer agreement, before reopening the meeting for public conversation and the vote.
To construct the synthetic turf fields, the city will be taking over approximately 10 acres of land from the school district, on the north side of the Civic Center.
The use agreement lays out the rights of the school district to use the turf fields and the softball fields, to be built in front of the Civic Center. The school will have priority use of the facilities during all days school is in session until 6 p.m., and then every weekday of the fall and spring sports seasons. The city will be responsible for all maintenance and upkeep of the facilities.
If for whatever reason the city decides not to move forward with constructing the athletic fields, the approved agreements would be null and void.
Otness urged the council to move the projects forward, as the longer they are held off, the more expensive everything gets.
"It is time to give them to the community," Otness said