Willmar City Council narrows down city hall and community center location to two potential sites
The Council will make a decision between an estimated $14 to $16 million remodel or building new at a cost of $31 to $35 million building at its Monday, March 20, meeting.
WILLMAR — At a work session Tuesday, Willmar City Council came to the consensus that it will discuss two final locations to be considered for a combined community center and city hall — the site of the current community center across Business Highway 71 from Robbins Island Regional Park or the JCPenney building at Uptown Willmar mall.
At a work session in November 2022 , the City Council reviewed multiple site concepts from BKV Group for standalone community center and city hall locations, as well as some sites for a combined community center and city hall.
Although the Council favored a couple of sites for the community center, none of the city hall or combined sites piqued its interest.
BKV Group was tasked with bringing back another site plan that combined city hall and the community center at the site of the current community center.
Mayor Doug Reese contacted Willmar Ten Investors to come to Tuesday’s work session to again present the idea of repurposing the JCPenney building for a new city hall and community center.
BKV Group estimated the cost to construct a combined project at the current community center site would be approximately $31 to $35 million. The Willmar Ten group estimated it could repurpose the JCPenney building for approximately $14 to $16 million.
The JCPenney building is a 52,000-square-foot structure with a little more than 3.5 acres of land. The city owns 5.3 acres of land at the current community center site, and the proposed new community center and city hall structure would have a total square footage of roughly 55,000 square feet.
Both projects would take a minimum of 18 months to complete.
Repurposing at a lower cost
Dion Warne presented the plan for the JCPenney location. Kelly TerWisscha and Ken Behm were also at the meeting to help answer any questions.
Warne went over the timeline of the JCPenney site proposal, noting that Willmar Ten first proposed the location in October 2020 and the Council unanimously approved working with city staff to further develop the concept.
The group learned more about the programming and needs of the current community center and city hall, and actively worked with city staff on the concept through most of 2021, but then did not hear much about the project.
In late 2022 the group learned that additional sites were presented to City Council, of which JCPenney was not one.
“When the City Council decided to look at the north site where the community center is now, we felt that that opened this up to anyone to come up with a better idea,” Warne said.
During presentations to the community, most were in favor of the location due to the slower traffic in the area, according to Warne.
Willmar Ten also saw the cost estimates provided by BKV Group. “I have to admit, we were a little surprised to see the price tag on those,” Warne said. “It didn’t really resonate too well with us, because we had offered this project for $10 million two years ago.”
Some of the positives that Warne pointed out about the JCPenney location include its accessibility for the community from any direction; its central location in the city and the opportunities provided by its proximity to schools and the shopping district; the economic impact it potentially has for surrounding businesses and potential new businesses; the ability to add some green space and improve a portion of the parking lot at Uptown Willmar; and the cost-savings in repurposing the building.
The two major concerns raised by City Council members regarding the location include the potential that Uptown Willmar is a failing mall that may close, and the age of the building.
“If we put it in the mall, it’s already 50 years old. How much longer can we expect it to last?” said Councilor Vicki Davis. “If we build a new one now, hopefully, we’ll have it for 70 years or more. I’m thinking long term, I’m thinking grandchildren, our children. They won’t have to think about this for a very long time if we do it right right now.”
Councilor Rick Fagerlie noted that the current city hall was a former medical clinic, “and that lasted a long time. I’m sure the mall is built a lot better than (the clinic) was.”
TerWisscha and city engineer Jared Voge of Bolton and Menk explained that the building would potentially last forever in the way in which it was constructed and the materials used, as long as it was properly maintained and remained weather-tight.
If Uptown Mall were to close, the JCPenney portion is its own standalone building sharing a common wall, so the entrance to the mall could be walled off.
“If the city agrees or decides to do this, I think it shows a commitment to repurpose,” Warne said. “We’re just asking, if you’re going to do this anyway and build a city hall and community center, why not put it someplace where it might spur other economic development?”
Building new from the ground up
Bruce Schwartzman of BKV Group presented the site concept for a combined community center and city hall at the current community center site.
“We don’t have a dog in this fight. Our plan and our goal is to provide you with information to make a good long-term decision for the city,” he said. “Cities very rarely get an opportunity to define what their city hall is going to look like, what their community center is going to be. It has to be the best for the city and what works for you financially, what works for you in every aspect, for the community and so on and so forth.”
The site provides accessibility by car, active open space and adequate parking. Some of the drawbacks are the community center would not be located in proximity to a residential neighborhood, the location is not walkable and city hall would not be located downtown.
Also, the community center would have to find a new space in which to operate during the construction of the new facility.
Councilors to compare proposals
During discussion, City Council members provided their opinions on the two sites, with Audrey Nelsen, Carl Shuldes, Michael O’Brien and Davis preferring the community center site.
“Yeah, it’s going to be a little more money, probably, (but) we get brand new, we get what we want, it’s kind of a regional center,” Shuldes said. “Robbins Island is kind of the focus of the city. I just believe that (by) going to the mall, we are confining ourselves.”
Councilor Tom Butterfield said he was leaning towards the community center site.
Fagerlie and Councilor Julie Asmus were in favor of the JCPenney site, and Councilor Justin Ask said he could not rule out one site over the other.
“I just feel like this is a huge financial impact on the taxpayers,” Asmus said, noting that the community is asking why the city is not going with the JCPenney location. “The senior population that is the major user of the community center right now, they’re still in favor of (the JCPenney) location … for the cost, I’m just leaning that way right now.”
Noting it is hard to compare apples to oranges and Willmar Ten had not put together solid numbers, which BKV Group did, Schwartzman admitted that it is cheaper to remodel a building.
He explained there may be unforeseen costs with the JCPenney location that have not been taken into consideration, and soft costs like furniture and flooring may not have been taken into account.
“I think the cost comparison, Councilwoman, while I respect that it probably is cheaper, I don’t think anybody knows what that true cost savings is at this point,” Schwartzman said.
Asmus agreed, adding, “I think, to me, what it’s going to come down to is the philosophy of — what do we want it to look like?” She noted that new and architecturally captivating is nice and a remodeled building may not be as spectacular, but she thought a remodel would work. “At one time they came in with $10 million. Even if it doubled to $20 million, we’re still a long way from $31 to $35 million.”