Despite a handful of efforts to breathe life into the Old Downtown, it remains a neighborhood with an identity crisis. It has not been a “Downtown”, in the true sense of the word, for a very long time. All but one traditional retailer has gone out of business. It long ago lost the vitality and luster that old-time Willmarites remember. First Street is Willmar’s true thoroughfare now, the center of the city’s retail commerce, it’s real downtown. As the only street that actually touches the boundaries of all four wards of the city, the title of a true Downtown is First Street’s rightful claim.
So, that leaves the Old Downtown as simply a Ward 3 neighborhood in transition. Typically, “neighborhood in transition” really means a rundown neighborhood on life-support, with few options.
Seems an apt description for the Old Downtown.
The current game plan for the Old Downtown looks to be a passive, default transition into a predominantly Somali enclave, Barn Theater and its brewpub neighbor notwithstanding.
This is a very unrealistic game plan. The Somali refugee population has no real wealth, the highest unemployment rate in Minnesota, and an average wage of less than $10 per hour. The average family, according to the World Health Organization, contains seven children. They come to America with little education if any, no job skills, and no business background. The vast majority of new American businesses fail within the first year. So why in the world would new Somali business enterprised in Willmar be expected to succeed without being propped up by taxpayers?
What is most troubling is the willingness of the Willmar 15 special interests to intentionally designate the Old Downtown for institutionalized poverty. The purpose is said to be humanitarian compassion and one-world multiculturalism, but make no mistake. This is about money, about providing cheap labor to meatpacking and motels, and hustling grant money that is usually tax money. To be sure, the neighborhood requires reinvention to survive, and its reinvention depends upon – as one community banker told me – a much higher density of people. But not just any people, friends. Our Somali neighbors are not up to the challenge.
Time and again, I’ve seen old, dilapidated neighborhoods undergo a renaissance when young people moved into a neighborhood; creative people; out-of-the-box thinkers. Most older neighborhoods in America like this one eventually wither and die on the vine, but every now and then, and old-time Downtown does indeed experience a rebirth, thanks more to youthful energy than taxpayers.
I have a very big, very transformative plan in mind for the revitalization of the Old Downtown, something that has not been tried before. It needs to begin immediately, and it needs to be bold. One thing I am sure of is that the current program is not working, and we are running out of time.
An exclusively Somali ghetto – in the traditional meaning of the word “ghetto” – is not the answer. The answer lies in creating something entirely new, while paying homage, paying tribute, to Willmar’s traditions, its past, and its culture.
Finally, the old Downtown is no longer a citywide issue. It is a Ward 3 issue.