Thinking out of the box land use development in Willmar

The Robbins Island playground proposal is yet one more answer to a question most Willmarites have never asked. Make no mistake; in the end, the park will still be a maintenance headache for the city of Willmar.

Affordable housing - meaning subsidized houing - is the fix being proposed to solve an alleged housing shortage created by Jennie-O/Hormel’s underpaid employees and unemployed refugees.

If there is a positive takeaway, however, it’s the opportunities for wide-ranging, public (read: transparent) conversations about what could be done to enhance the quality of life in Willmar by smart redevelopment.

I’ll throw out a few idea here, if you’ll indulge this candidate.

DOWNTOWN

I’ve said it before; a downtown college campus could breathe tremendous life into Willmar’s Old Downtown. Imagine, for instance, the relocation of the Ridgewater College nursing program to a downtown campus. Nearby Rice Hospital, Divine House, Hagen Orthotics, and rehabilitation facilities offer students and health care businesses alike some interesting internship opportunities. The western part of the neighborhood already houses about a dozen dental students who intern at Rice Hospital. Several downtown buildings are ripe for redevelopment as SRO’s (single room occupancy) for student housing. The Litchfield Ave. parking lot and the municipal lot behind Bethel Lutheran Church should be adequate to accommodate one college department, along with commuter vans to reach the main campus. Just think what the spending power of, say, 200 college students could do to attract new small business downtown, not to mention the cultural vibe that college neighborhoods are creating in downtown neighborhoods around the country.

NORTH SIDE

Admittedly, this is Ward 1, not Ward 3. The Kandiyohi County Fairgrounds - not only an underutilized asset for the neighborhood, but a challenge for local residents during car racing season. Complaints over parking pressures, noise, and air pollution abound. The Fairground is also horribly inaccessible to people with disabilities. In a city with one of the highest per-capita populations of disabled in Minnesota, this is simply unacceptable.

The redevelopment of the fairground’s 35 lakeside acres presents a tremendous opportunity to increase housing stock, promote improvement of existing housing in the neighborhood, add tax base, and raise values of existing housing. Some years ago, at least one local company proposed a land swap, through which the county would be offered a new fairground, outside the city limits, along with a brand new, state-of-the-art car racing track. Additionally, the developer and the car racing association could create a larger car racing business as a regional draw, with larger racing purses and retail activity to attract more racers and spectators beyond Kandiyohi County. Think Brainerd Speedway, albeit with a more sophisticated business plan. NASCAR racing attracts more spectators than any sport in the United States.

And while we’re on the subject of dilapidated housing, I have proposed an experimental, one-time partial tax abatement on a pilot basis. Let’s see, for instance, if landlords on Trott Avenue SE could be encouraged to beautify the outside of their rental properties on a one-time basis, with a dollar-for-dollar match of their own money and property taxes due, up to the limit of one year’s worth of property tax. If this proves to be insufficient incentive, then the city steps up compliance enforcement on reluctant landlords in a very major way. This project, incidentally, will NOT be overseen by bureaucrats, but rather, neighborhood committees, who will have to sign off on improvements in order for landlords to receive their tax credits.

ROBBINS ISLAND

Many of my fellow constituents are lamenting the passing of Robbins Island as an urban refuge for peace, quiet, and serenity.

There’s something to be said for that.

The first useful and unobtrusive use to which Robbins Island could be put is for relocation of the various Farmer’s Markets in Willmar. Currently, the largest market is held weekly at the YMCA. A natural setting like Robbins Island would be much more attractive to shoppers, in a marketing sense. It also is more accessible to shoppers beyond Willmar, via Highway 71.

One recent contributor to the WCTrib Opinion section suggested redevelopment as an RV park. That’s a very interesting proposition. As the writer pointed out, there are currently no RV parks in the city of Willmar, and a lakeside RV park could have tremendous appeal to out-of-towners.

Another interesting prospect is the development of a water amusement park - sort of a Wisconsin Dells in miniature. I’m talking about a business venture now, not a tax-funded boondoggle. If Kandiyohi County is truly “the gateway to the lakes region,” a commercially-viable, regional attraction like a water park could be a recreational boon to the area that does not require government involvement. Again, it could truly be a regional draw to the county.

On the subject of being a gateway to the lakes, there are few outdoor sporting destinations that do not offer an outfitters store. Think Ely now. The economic development of Old Downtown could be helped along by soliciting an outfitters store, along the lines of Cabella’s.

Finally, the vacant eyesore that the former Mills Auto on 1st Street has become cannot be allowed to fester. As we know from the old Torvik (sp?) property in Old Downtown, Mills seems to be under no financial pressure to release these properties for redevelopment. In the case of the 1st Street property; due to its size and location, the property is becoming a psychological handicap to the community as well. It’s just not healthy for 1st Street’s prospects for growth. Admittedly, the style of the physical structure presents extremely limited commercial applications short of a teardown, since Mills refuses to see the properties become the auto dealerships of competitors.

Suggestion: could Willmar attract a warehouse shopping club for the facility, along the lines of Costco, Sam’s Club, etc.? Parenthetically, friends, Mills recently sold of its Mills Fleet Farms to the New York investment banking firm of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts. Mills clearly has relationships then with investors looking for financial opportunities in retail. Just saying…

These and other ideas should and, if I’m elected, WILL be discussed at future Town Meetings. Rather, however, than filling the room with hot air, we will fill the room with action plans and measurable goals for success.