Willmar Municipal Utilities celebrates a milestone anniversary

WILLMAR -- It was 1891 when the first utility works and commission were established in Willmar. Approved March 7, 1891, in a landslide vote of 227 to 42, residents directed the then-village to construct water works in town. Fast forward 125 years...

Willmar Municipal Power Plant today
The present Municipal Power Plant was built in 1923, with the most recent addition in 1968. At minimum, it is staffed 24/7 by two workers: a system operator and a boiler operator. (RAND MIDDLETON | TRIBUNE)

WILLMAR - It was 1891 when the first utility works and commission were established in Willmar. Approved March 7, 1891, in a landslide vote of 227 to 42, residents directed the then-village to construct water works in town.
Fast forward 125 years, and the Willmar Municipal Utilities provides residents and businesses of Willmar with water, power and - in some cases - heat.
“As the city grows, the utility grows,” said Willmar Municipal Utilities General Manager Wes Hompe.
Those first water works have grown to include 16 wells, two water treatment plants, three pumping stations and four storage facilities. Over 120 miles of pipes run through Willmar, providing about 4 million gallons of water a day to customers. Some of those first pipes are still in use today.
“They’re still carrying water,” Hompe said.
Villagers began pushing for electricity by 1889, and Willmar approved the first electric light plant May 27, 1895. The response to sign up for electricity was so large that the plant reached capacity before it was even officially accepted after construction by the village council.
The city’s power grid has continued to grow over the decades. Today, Willmar Municipal Utilities is responsible for the city power station, five substations,
18 feeder lines to neighborhood transformers, two wind turbines and 217 miles of power lines, most of which are now underground. Power is produced at the plant and purchased from several different power providers.
“We’re not 100 percent dependent on anything,” Hompe said, adding a varied power portfolio keeps the lights on and the rates down.
Willmar first started providing steam heat to downtown customers in 1913 during the winter. It became year-round in 1936 and was upgraded to a hot water heating system in 1982.
“In 125 years, it is amazing what we’ve done,” Hompe said.
The team at Willmar
Municipal Utilities wants to share the successes the utility has had over the years with a year-long anniversary celebration.
“We’re trying to promote the past, present and future,” said Mary Kosbab, energy service representative.
The utility plans on being more visible at community events, such as having a float in the Willmar Fests Grand Parade and the Holidaze parade and participating in National Night Out. In October, Willmar Municipal Utilities will also mark Public Power week with its annual open house.
“We want to create a more approachable entity,” Kosbab said.
Hompe and his staff also want to show customers just what their monthly bill makes possible.
“I would like them to see it’s your money that is letting us progress and provide you a reliable service,” Hompe said.
Another goal of the year-long celebration of Willmar Municipal Utilities is to look to the future and foster community support for upcoming projects, such as a new office facility and updated power plant and water treatment plants.
“We have a laundry list of issues,” Hompe said.
The first power plant on the current site was built in 1925 and had its last major additions in the 1950s. Some of the equipment still in use today is 50 to 60 years old.
“It is run by mechanical magicians there,” Hompe said.
The water treatment plants were installed in 1991, firstly to treat the city’s rusty water.
“People never forget our rusts,” Hompe said.
Now those 25-year-old plants need updates.
The office building was constructed in 1957 and since then has been added onto many different ways. The electrical and heating systems are aging and the number of employees has outgrown the office space available. The garage used to store most of the line trucks and equipment was once a Minnesota Department of Transportation building and is now too small for most new vehicles.
“Come visit us and see why” the facility projects are needed, Hompe said.
Beyond its facilities, Willmar Municipal Utilities has recently focused on its digital face. A new computer software system was installed last year, which included allowing customers to pay their bills with credit cards, and last month the utility commission approved a redesign of the website. The goal is to make it easier for customers to navigate the site and pay their bill.
“Pay their bills in three clicks or less,” Hompe said.
All of the upgrades, updates and new ideas being implemented at Willmar Municipal Utilities are to increase the efficiencies and reliability of the utilities.
“We take our responsibility of utility provider very seriously. We’re an assumption because we’re so good at it,” Hompe said.
And the Municipal Utilities hopes to continue to be an assumption for a very long time.
“We expect to be here for another 125 years. It is a milestone for our organization. We’re pretty successful and we want WIllmar citizens to know what a good deal they have here,” Hompe said.

Willmar municipal utilities timeline

  • March 7, 1891 : Willmar voters approve proposition to finance first water works.
  • May 27, 1895 : Voters approve the construction of Willmar’s first electric plant.
  • Sept. 22, 1901 : Boiler explodes at power plant, causing massive damage. No one seriously injured. Plant up and running again by October 2.
  • 1914: City switches to 60-cycle alternating current (AC) production, from the original 133-cycle direct current (DC).
  • April 1913 : Public steam heating system installed, to provide winter warmth to buildings downtown.
  • May 16, 1925 : New power plant, located where it currently sits on Block 20, begins producing power.
  • June 13, 1949 : New 4,000-watt turbine goes into production, increasing the power plant’s capacity. 
  • April 20, 1954 : The Willmar Water and Light Commission becomes the Municipal Utilities Commission.
  • April 25, 1956 : Cornerstone of the Municipal Utilities Office and Service building was laid.
  • 1982 : Modern hot water heating system replaces old steam heat in downtown. Was one of the first such systems in the United States.
  • July 5, 1984 : Municipal Utilities Commission purchases half of the 30-mile, 230-kilovolt line and half the capacity of the substation on the south edge of Willmar from the United Power Association.
  • 1991 : Water treatment plants constructed, to remove rust from city water.
  • Oct. 15, 2008: A service territory agreement and an annexation compensation model between Municipal Utilities Commission and Kandiyohi Cooperative Electric Power Association signed. The agreement laid out how the city would compensate the association for customers lost due to annexation. 
  • Sept. 3, 2009 : Willmar Municipal Utilities dedicates its two wind turbines.
  • August 2015 : After 37 years, the utility finishes burying all of the city’s above ground power lines.
  • Source: “A Century of Service,” Willmar Municipal Utilities history book published in 1991)

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email or direct 320-214-4373.

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