Willmar Ten Investors turning blight into tax-generating properties for more than 40 years

Since February of 1980, Willmar Ten Investors have been purchasing blighted properties in the city and redeveloping them into tax-generating properties.

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The Appletree Square strip mall in east Willmar is the first project developed by the Willmar Ten Investors after the investment group's formation in 1980. The location at the northwest corner of U.S. Highway 12 East and Lakeland Drive had previously been a plant nursery.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — For 43 years, a group of Willmar business leaders have been investing in the community, buying blighted properties and renovating them, adding back beauty and a tax base to the city of Willmar.

“I think the theme is … even going back to 1980 … and Kelly (TerWisscha) pointed this out to me … ‘Dion, the theme here is we take blighted property and turn it into nice property that produces nice real estate taxes for the city,’” said Dion Warne of the Willmar Ten Investors. “Especially, I think, on this corner.”

Dion Warne
Dion Warne
Jennifer Kotila / West Central Tribune

The corner Warne is talking about is the intersection of U.S. Highway 12 East and Lakeland Drive. “Prior to Willmar Ten at all, the whole corner was an eyesore other than Juba’s SuperValu,” TerWisscha said.

Juba’s SuperValu was located in the current Westside Liquor building and at one time the owner, Buck Juba, was also a member of Willmar Ten Investors.

Willmar Ten is currently awaiting a decision from the Willmar City Council to see if their next big project will be purchasing and renovating the former JCPenney building at Uptown Willmar into a new city hall and community center. The JCPenney building has sat empty since 2020.


It was February of 1980 when a group of business leaders signed an agreement to invest $12,500 each for the purpose of owning, building upon, altering, repairing, renting, leasing, subdividing, selling and otherwise dealing with real and personal property — becoming Willmar Ten Investors.

The original partners were Norman Tallakson, M.M. Mikkelson, Oscar Erickson, Marvin Behm, Randall Johnson, Ray Pederson, James Rule, Donald Dean, Ken Behm and Dean Anderson.

Over the years, the names and faces of the group have changed. There are currently eight different entities involved in the partnership, some of which are family trusts for members who have died. The family trusts include the TerWisscha, Swenson and Graves interests. The remaining investors include Ken Behm, Dion Warne, Ben Brown, Jeff Danielson and Pat Peterson.

The first project Willmar Ten took on was Appletree Square on the northwest corner of Highway 12 East and Lakeland Drive, which used to be a plant nursery. Behm had owned Home State Bank of Kandiyohi for about 10 years when that project fell into his lap.

Ken Behm
Ken Behm
Jennifer Kotila / West Central Tribune

Irv Hanson owned the nursery and sold the business to Martin Osmundson of Kandiyohi, who was banking with Wally Westrom in Pennock, according to Behm.

“He was buying it on contract from Irv Hanson and Wally called me up one day and said, ‘I can’t borrow him any more money,’ and asked if my dad would be interested in borrowing some additional money,” Behm said.

“My dad did and the rest is history. Within nine months he closed and my dad had to buy out the Pennock bank and we went to Bailey Nurseries in St. Paul, because they had a mortgage ahead of my dad, too — we didn’t know — so that’s how we ended up with the property.”

This was right around the time that laws in Minnesota changed to allow branch banking, and Behm liked the location for a branch of Home State Bank. The strip mall was built and Home State Bank occupied one of the units.


“Ray Pederson is one of the original ones — he had Ray Pederson Construction Company in town here — and we put the building, Appletree, out for bids and John TerWisscha , Kelly’s dad, had a lower bid, so then Ray sold his interest to John TerWisscha,” Behm said of how the TerWisschas became involved with Willmar Ten.

Kelly TerWisscha
Kelly TerWisscha
Jennifer Kotila / West Central Tribune

The next project for Willmar Ten was the former Runnings building where Taco John’s is located and the building in which Panda Garden is located on First Street South, which Willmar Ten purchased around 1985 or 1986. The Runnings building was fully occupied, but the Panda Garden building had sat empty for a while, according to Behm.

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Dan Piotrowski of Sysco unloads products in front of Erbert & Gerbert's and Taco John's on Wednesday, April 19, 2023, in the 1300 block of First Street South in Willmar. The storefronts are part of the development in the mid-1980s of a former Runnings building by the Willmar Ten Investors.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

“We spent a lot of money fixing that building up and getting it ready for rent,” he said.

After that, focus again turned to East Highway 12 in 1994 when the owner of the First Street South Burger King, Dave Knoop, decided he wanted a Burger King on that side of town. Burger King first went into the BP gas station, which is now the La Manzanita Mexican Market.

Eventually, Knoop wanted to buy the property on the northeast corner of East Highway 12 and Lakeland Drive for a Burger King, but he didn’t want the entire property, according to Warne.

“When I came here in 1993, I worked in the strip mall for the bank,” Warne said, noting that across Lakeland Drive was a “creepy” motel and rows of mobile homes, and across East Highway 12 from that “was a blue liquor store, had bars on the windows … (there) was a little bait shop, and … two houses and a chicken coop. It was just an eyesore. The whole corner was bad.”

Since Knoop wanted only a portion of the property for Burger King, Rollie Swenson, who owned Swenson Motors, and Behm bought the rest of the property and decided to build another strip mall in about 1995 or 1996.

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Patrons enter Edward Jones in a strip mall located along U.S. Highway 12 East in Willmar on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. The strip mall was built in in the mid-1990s, one of several sites Willmar Ten Investors have developed in Willmar.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Over the years, Warne worked to persuade his wife, Laura, who is president of Home State Bank, and Behm to buy the southeast corner of the intersection for the bank. The bank was growing and taking up more and more space in the Appletree Square strip mall.


“They weren’t sure they wanted to do that, so I put together three customers — they bought the corner, they got rid of all the junk, cleared it off into a nice big site — and then the bank bought it from them,” Warne said. It was noted that the people who cleared the corner made a lot of money in the deal.

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Home State Bank in Willmar is shown Wednesday, April 19, 2023. Dion Warne of the Willmar Ten Investors had to do some persuading before the bank built a new location at the southeast corner of U.S. Highway 12 East and Lakeland Drive.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

It was around that time that Warne bought his interest in Willmar Ten from Juba. The new bank building and the strip mall that sits south of it were completed in 2005 and 2006.

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A woman departs a business located within the Lakeland Professional Centre in the 300 block of Lakeland Drive Southeast in Willmar on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. The strip mall south of Home State Bank was developed by the Willmar Ten Investors.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

TerWisscha and his brother-in-law Keith Nelson bought the Big Bear store in Willmar after it closed in 2008, then approached Willmar Ten to buy and develop it, according to Warne.

Willmar Ten bought it for approximately $1.2 million and then didn’t do anything for four years except tear the building down, according to Behm.

The location was prime real estate on the corner of First Street South and 19th Avenue Southeast and there were a lot of potential plans for the lot during those four years — Elmquist Jewelers was moving from downtown and considered building on that lot, IHOP and Buffalo Wild Wings franchisees considered putting a restaurant there, and a local bank expressed some interest in expanding on the property, according to Warne.

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“Then Goodwill came to us and we actually said, ‘That’s the nicest corner in town, why would you put a Goodwill there? You could buy a property out behind PetSmart or something,’” Warne said. “They came back again and said, ‘No, we want to be front and center so when people are thinking about making donations, they’ll see us every day.’”

Willmar Ten ended up building the store, and leased it to Goodwill.

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A woman departs Goodwill at 100 19th Ave. S.W. in Willmar on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. The prime real estate on the corner of First Street South and 19th Avenue Southeast was held by the Willmar Ten Investors for several years before the investment group ended up building this store and leasing it to Goodwill.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Also between 2008 and 2011, Willmar Ten completely renovated the former Runnings building on South First Street when Walmart built the new supercenter and Runnings moved to the former Walmart building.


“But the original of Willmar Ten was really about East Highway 12, because Ken, you wanted the branch bank and East Highway 12 was closest to Kandiyohi and East Highway 12 was not a real nice area with the trailer courts and the seedy motels,” TerWisscha said.

Behm agreed, noting that East Highway 12 has the most traffic of any entrance to the city. Warne commented that more than 60% of the traffic coming into Willmar comes from East Highway 12, according to Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce President Ken Warner.

“Honestly, we were somewhat driven by having a nicer entrance into Willmar, because this is the first stoplight as you come in on 12,” Warne said. “So, I think we’ve accomplished that as far as the different buildings that are here now. It’s just been a good ride for 43 years.”

Willmar Ten has now started divesting itself of some of the properties. Two years ago, it sold the Taco John’s building and the strip mall next to the Burger King. Behm emphasized they were sold to local people, noting that is a “key element” of how the group wants to conduct business.

For the most part, though, Willmar Ten has bought, renovated and held on to those properties.

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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