Willmar council pauses decision on home for new community center and city hall as it seeks more information

The pause is to allow Willmar Ten Investors additional time to solidify numbers on what the renovation of the former JCPenney building would cost.

Willmar Offices 032123 003.jpg
A car travels past the former location of JCPenney at the Uptown Willmar mall on Tuesday, March 21, 2023. The Willmar City Council made the decision Monday to give the Willmar Ten additional time to present more solid numbers of the cost to renovate the JCPenney space to become the new home of the Willmar Community Center and Willmar City Hall. The current site of the Willmar Community Center, where a new building would be constructed, is the other location under consideration.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — Numerous people attended the Willmar City Council meeting Monday to share their opinion about where a new combined Willmar Community Center and Willmar City Hall should be located, and council members also stated they had been contacted by numerous residents.

After listening to constituents, Councilor Justin Ask made the motion to wait until the May 15 meeting to make a decision, with Councilor Carl Shuldes seconding. The council unanimously approved.

WCT Poll:

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A man walks past the former JCPenney site at the Uptown Willmar mall on Tuesday, March 21, 2023. It is one of two locations under consideration to become the new home of the Willmar Community Center and Willmar City Hall.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

It also unanimously agreed to have a structural engineer inspect the former JCPenney mall location for the soundness of the building to assure the council that it would last as long as building new.


Andy Weiner, RockStep Capital
Andy Weiner, RockStep Capital
Contributed / RockStep Capital

The two locations under consideration are the current site of the Willmar Community Center on Business 71 across from Robbins Island Regional Park, on which a new building would be constructed to house both the Willmar Community Center and Willmar City Hall, and the former JCPenney location at Uptown Willmar, which would be renovated to accommodate both. Uptown Willmar is along First Street South, with JCPenney facing Fifth Street Southeast on the east side of the mall.

Roughly 20 residents attended the council meeting, with a dozen people speaking during public comment, including Andy Weiner of RockStep Capital, which owns Uptown Willmar, and Dion Warne and Ken Behm of Willmar Ten.

“I’m the owner of Uptown Willmar and I’m asking that the City Council and the mayor choose the JCPenney location over going north,” Weiner said. “I’m the biggest taxpayer here. It will save me money. Not only will it save me money, but I have the solution, and I don’t want to pay more taxes and have a bad solution for the community.”

Video: Andy Warne comments on JC Penney site

Dion Warne
Dion Warne
Contributed / Home State Bank

He told the council that locating a city hall and community center at Uptown Mall would “spur the redevelopment to the rest of the property,” which he has seen happen in other communities.

“To my thinking, it seems like a no-brainer,” he added, noting that the city would save $18 million to $20 million over new construction. “This is what I see prudent and progressive communities throughout the country do.”

BKV Group estimates it could build new at a cost of $31 million to $35 million. Willmar Ten estimates it would cost approximately $14 million to $16 million to renovate the mall space.


The council on Monday approved waiting 60 days to allow the Willmar Ten to put together a more solid presentation of how much the renovations of the JCPenney site would cost. The original proposal from the investor group was made in 2020.

Video: Dion Warne comments on JCPenney site

When speaking during public comment, Warne explained that people were asking why Willmar Ten did not have more solid numbers.

“I kind of liken this to a final exam. There’s one group of students who had six to eight months to work with the teachers and the tutors about the final exam, which was last Tuesday,” he said, referring to a special work session March 14 when the council discussed locations. “There’s another group of us that didn’t know class was still in session until five days before the meeting happened. … If you truly want to compare apples to apples … delaying this vote 60 days gives us an opportunity to give you some hard numbers. They are going to be less than $30 (million) to $35 million. If we come in here with a number that is hard, then you can make an informed vote.”

The residents who spoke Monday at the meeting, all of whom use the current Willmar Community Center, were largely in favor of the JCPenney location. Two of their main concerns was where the programming for the community center would take place while constructing a new building at the current site, and the cost of building new versus repurposing an older building.

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A woman departs the Willmar Community Center on Tuesday, March 21, 2023. The site on Business 71 North is one of two the city has been considering to be the new home for Willmar City Hall and the Willmar Community Center. A new building to house both would be constructed if this site is chosen.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Video: Ken Behm of Willmar Ten on JCPenney site:

“Has anyone considered the seniors or are we to just fade into the sunset?” asked Ken Newberg, president of the Willmar senior citizens group. “We owe it to our seniors to keep these programs going.”


Willmar resident David Frey noted that community center programming serves 15,500 people each year and special programs bring in an additional 3,200 people. There are 34 groups that use the community center for various activities, and it was rented 50 times last year for events.

The city would have to find a location for programming, and a kitchen and a woodshop, Frey said. “Spending money on a temporary facility does not seem to be reasonable when we can just renovate a building with no program disruption.”

“I’m at the community center several times a week and very active in the community. The community center draws an age group from 4 years to 102, which is very good,” said Diana Frey. “Activities can start at any time from 8 o’clock in the morning and end at 10 o’clock at night.”

Residents saw many benefits with the JCPenney location, including the ability to draw more people to community center activities, the potential to improve the economic vitality of the area, the accessibility of the location and the opportunity for additional programming with nearby schools.

Jo DeBruycker told the council that she had spoken with people at the mall recently, and many of them thought that building the community center and city hall there was a great idea that would increase activity.

Karen Hernandez told the council that she lives at the Sterling Manor senior living community, and many of the residents there are in their 80s. They have told her that they do not use the community center because it is too far away, but would use it sometimes if it were closer to where they live.

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A woman enters the Willmar Community Center on Tuesday, March 21, 2023. The site is one of two the city has been considering for a new combined Willmar City Hall and Willmar Community Center.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

“Putting the city offices and the community center at the JCPenney building, I believe, will provide a solid flagship for that mall,” said Dan Drevlow. “I think you would see there would be businesses coming in. I think you could revitalize that area.”

He also had concerns regarding the costs the city would incur for potential improvements to Business 71 and High Street for increased traffic at the current site of the Willmar Community Center.


“I have a store in the Uptown Willmar mall that closed, unfortunately, at the end of February. Part of the reason it closed is that we just don’t have the foot traffic that we used to have,” said Sheila Bass, owner of West Central RockHounds. She said one of the reasons she decided to move into the Willmar mall was because of the proposal for city hall and the community center moving to the mall.

She also stated that people she has spoken to think locating city hall and the community center at Uptown Willmar is a great idea.

Video: Willmar City Council's discussion on two city hall site options:

City Council members shared their opinions during discussion of the issue, with Councilor Julie Asmus reiterating that she believed constituents think repurposing the mall space would show true leadership and fiscal responsibility.

“If we were to build there, we’d be showing the businesses firsthand that we’re willing to invest in property that not only fits our needs, but it could very possibly have an effect on the future growth in a major retail area of our city,” she said. “I feel that repurposing and revitalizing the JCPenney building is how we show that we are spending the taxpayers money responsibly.”

Councilor Carl Shuldes stated that he had “done a 180” from the work session when he favored the community center site despite costs.

“I really think JCPenney would be better, just based on the cost,” he said, noting it would also allow for community center programming to continue as it has until the building is renovated. “It would be a hardship on those people to move them somewhere.”

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Councilor Rick Fagerlie and Councilor Ask also were in favor of the JCPenney location. However, Ask was clear he wanted to know the integrity of the JCPenney building before making a decision.


Councilors Vicki Davis and Audrey Nelsen made it clear that they do not support the mall location.

Davis stated that she had gone to Uptown Willmar over the weekend and took pictures of water spots on the ceiling and buckets catching dripping water.

“I want to know, if we were to commit to this, will there be some fixing done? Not just the part we buy, because we are going to be attached to that,” she said, also noting the condition of the parking lot.

Although Nelsen does not support the mall location, she did want those using the community center to be assured that they were not forgotten.

“I also think the senior club, along with the community center, needs to be assured that they are valuable and that they would be somewhere undisrupted for that,” she said, asking that a plan for the relocation of the community center during construction be something that is also looked at during the pause on making a decision about the location.

It was unclear at the end of discussion what Councilors Michael O’Brien and Tom Butterfield prefer.

Video: Willmar City Council comments — March 20, 2023

Jennifer Kotila is a reporter for West Central Tribune of Willmar, Minnesota. She focuses on local government, specifically the City of Willmar, and business.

She can be reached via email at: or phone at 320-214-4339.
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