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Willmar mayoral candidates participate in a political forum Friday

Two of the three Willmar mayoral candidates participated in a forum Friday hosted by the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce Public Policy Committee; the third candidate submitted a statement explaining why he did not participate.

Attendees listen to Willmar mayoral candidates answer various questions during a candidate forum at the Willmar Convention Center on Friday, August 5, 2022.
Attendees listen to Willmar mayoral candidates answer various questions during a candidate forum at the Willmar Convention Center on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — The two Willmar mayoral candidates who participated in a forum Friday hosted by the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce Public Policy Committee covered numerous issues facing the city of Willmar. Mayoral candidates Zeke Dahl and Doug Reese were in attendance at the forum.

Candidate Steve Peppin submitted a statement explaining why he did not participate, as he has promised the city he would not campaign for mayor until after the conclusion of a Sept. 10 music festival his company is producing.

More 2022 election coverage:
Two women and three men will compete in the Nov. 8 general election for three seats on the Willmar School Board. Three of the candidates are incumbents.

Zeke Dahl

This is Dahl’s third attempt at running for public office. He has lived in Willmar for five years, and ran for Willmar mayor in 2018 and city council in 2020.

Dahl is adamant that a new city hall is not needed for the city of Willmar, a project that has been under discussion for years. He said he believes building a new city hall would only be a tax burden for the residents and only benefits a few people.

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“I think there are other priorities like public safety and the roads that need to go first, ” Dahl stated. “If I’m elected mayor, I’m not going to be in that office, anyway. I’m going to be out on the streets.”

Zeke Dahl, who is running for Willmar mayor, speaks to a crowd during a candidate forum at the Willmar Convention Center on Friday, August 5, 2022.
Zeke Dahl, who is running for Willmar mayor, speaks to a crowd during a candidate forum at the Willmar Convention Center on Friday, August 5, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Dahl said he would get bonding to fix the city’s streets. “It takes time, but it will eventually get done,” he said.

In order to accomplish what he wants as a mayor, he said, “Everybody’s got to work together, one person can’t do it all.”

Dahl would hire a grant writer to work with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help solve Willmar’s housing problems by rehabilitating the abandoned houses in town and getting them back on the market.

Dahl would like to try to attract businesses to Willmar from the Twin Cities area, saying he has been talking to business leaders in the Twin Cities and Minneapolis area who are thinking about relocating due to the “little crime problem they have out there.”

“They want to be in a safer area for their businesses,” Dahl said. “There’s a lot of land in Willmar to do that, but it has to be a right fit for the community.”

When asked his views on Willmar’s immigrant past and future, Dahl stated that if people come here legally and do it the right way, the law allows it. He also stated that freedom of religion is a First Amendment right.

When asked what would be different in Willmar in 2026 if his goals for the city were fulfilled, Dahl said, “I don’t think that far ahead, I do one day at a time. ... You have to have a plan, you have to have a vision, but sometimes dreams and reality are far apart.”

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During his closing statement, Dahl said everyone should exercise their right to vote.

“You get who you vote for and some people don’t vote,” he said. “Just vote on Election Day. Vote with your heart, and who you think is going to best represent you. I did that with Trump and he didn’t win, so that might not work.”

Steve Peppin

Peppin's company Studio 38 is producing a country music festival slated Sept. 10 at Robbins Island Park in Willmar. As part of the agreement with the city, he agreed not to campaign for mayor until after the event.

Peppin.Steve.jpg
Steve Peppin
Jennifer Kotila / West Central Tribune

His statement to the Chamber event reads in part: “It’s a privilege to be running for mayor and one that I don’t take lightly. However, in keeping with my promise to the city ... I must respectfully decline to participate in the forum. That being said, I will continue to engage daily with the local business community, as I’ve always done, in an effort to listen to and try to understand the challenges facing businesses in our community. ... I am genuinely interested (in) the needs of the family and larger commercial businesses of Willmar.”

Doug Reese

Reese and his wife, Marion, raised their three children in Willmar after he moved his family here in 1972. He served as a Willmar City Council member for 26 years and Kandiyohi County commissioner for four years.

Reese stated that street improvements have been deferred for many years, and the city needs to find alternative ways to fund the street program with a long-term, dedicated funding source.

Willmar Mayor Candidate Forum 002.jpg
Willmar mayoral candidate Doug Reese answers a question during a candidate forum at the Willmar Convention Center on Friday, August 5, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

He said he has been spoken with numerous people about child care and housing. A lot of apartment complexes are being built, but not many single-family homes.

He thought the city could provide incentives to bring more homes, business developments and child care businesses to Willmar. Somali business owners have told him Somali families are leaving the community due to not being able to find adequate child care and jobs.

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He would work with the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission to address those needs.

“Understanding economic development can help the mayor — whoever it is, I hope it’s me — improve conditions within their city and make residents more prosperous,” he said.

His plan to remedy the city hall problem would be to utilize the former J.C. Penney store space at Uptown Willmar as both city hall and a community center, which is one of the proposals that has been presented.

“ ... I think it would be a help to the mall, but also advantageous to the city,” he said.

Noting that Willmar has been looked at for a number of years as a model city because of its change in population, he said, “We need to go down(town) and enjoy the mix that we have in our community.”

If his goals are fulfilled by the year 2026, Willmar’s streets will be in great shape with a plan and dedicated funding to keep them in good shape, and there will be new businesses in the industrial park along with child care available to allow people to go to work, Reese said.

Reese said he would rely on the experience and the expertise of those who are most experienced in public safety to understand the challenges faced by the city, having an open discussion in order to set proper policy to address the community impact of drug and alcohol abuse.

“As a mayor, it is critical to have leadership skills, and a mayor who is a strong leader is capable of getting full commitment out of our staff and our employees, which in turn leads to higher success in addressing our community needs,” Reese said. “Just keep plodding ahead working with the staff to understand the needs of the community and how we can address those needs.”

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: jkotila@wctrib.com or phone at 320-214-4339.
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