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Tribune Opinion: Be sure on location decision for city hall/community center

Summary: A new city hall/community center will be used for a long time, so let's make sure we pick the right location for Willmar.

Most agree that the city of Willmar is in need of a different city hall and that a community center of some sort would be a good addition for the community.

The question that remains has long been — where should the city hall be located and what facilities should be built in conjunction? The need was intensified following the water-leakage incident at the current City Hall that damaged the facility, equipment and records.

And Willmar voters and city leaders have approved a community center facility as one of the six projects supported by the latest local option sales tax plan.

article6680504.ece WCTpoll 092620 Where should the Willmar City Council locate the proposed city hall/community center project? Locate at Business 71 North site across from Robbins Island Locate at the JCPenny facility in Uptown Willmar Choose another location in Willmar

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A city hall task force has been studying the city hall and a community center issue for a long time — considering locations in downtown Willmar, sites along First Street and other locations around the city. The task force and its leaders are to be commended for their hard work and dedication to review the options and in identifying a workable plan for a new city hall-community center project.

The tentative plan is to build a new city hall/community center complex on a city-owned location along Business Highway 71 North, across from Robbins Island Regional Park. It is a good location as there was no workable location in downtown Willmar.

However, changing economic conditions and the retail industry refocusing recently brought forth another location option — the JCPenny facility at the Uptown Willmar mall location.

It is a location option worth study and consideration.

First, the vitality of malls has changed in recent years and many anchor stores, as well as complete malls, have closed. The Uptown Willmar mall (formerly known as the Kandi Mall) has seen its three major anchor stores close in just the last decade — Kmart, Herbergers, and now JCPenny this year. We all — the mall owners, the city and its residents — should be concerned about the future of this retail location.

Second, RockStep Capital — general partners of Uptown Willmar since late 2015 with nine local investor groups as minority owners — have been working hard to maintain and rejuvenate this retail location. It has not been an easy task in recent years and the COVID pandemic is not helping. The mall owners have made some progress: by landing two new retail businesses — Kohls and Harbor Freight — and bringing in new ownership to re-open the ReelLux Cinemas complex.

Third, the proposal from the Willmar 10 Investors to purchase the JCPenney site at Uptown Willmar and refurbish the facility into a combined city hall and community center is a local business group working to create a public-private partnership to address the local facility needs and a changing retail environment within our city.

Fourth, retail building resurrection has worked in former mall locations in other cities and helped transform old facilities into positive facility uses. Such government building renovation projects include:

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  • Hickory Hollow Mall in Antioch, Tenn., now housing a satellite college campus and a city library.

  • Cinderella City Mall in Englewood, Col., now includes city government offices, residential units and a library.

  • A part of the Echelon Mall location in Voorhess, N.J., is now the Voorhees Town Hall.

Yes, this city hall/community center decision has been on the city’s agenda for several years now. And we all — city leaders, city employees, community leaders and residents — want a decision sooner than later.
Finally, wherever the Willmar City Council decides to build or to locate the proposed city hall/community center complex, Willmar residents and city government will be utilizing any new facility for the next half-century, at least. So Willmar will have to live with this decision for a long time.

So let’s make sure it is the right decision in the right location for the right reasons for Willmar.

This editorial is the opinion of the West Central Tribune Editorial Board, consisting of publisher Steve Ammermann and editor Kelly Boldan.

Kelly Boldan has been editor of West Central Tribune and Wctrib.com in Willmar, Minnesota, since October 2001. He joined Forum Communications Co. in November 1998 as editor of the Bemidji (Minn.) Pioneer.
Boldan can be reached via email: editor@wctrib.com or telephone: 320-214-4331.
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