WILLMAR—The city of Willmar received the largest Small Cities grant awarded in the state in 2018.
Awarded by the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, using funds from the federal Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block grant, the $1,205,177 grant will be used for housing and commercial rehabilitation in a targeted area and a rehab project at Hanson Apartments on Lakeland Drive Southeast.
The money can be used only for projects within the program’s parameters for health and safety improvements for homes, multi-family housing or commercial businesses.
“It is anything that makes it safe,” said Jill Bengtson, director of the Kandiyohi County Housing and Redevelopment Authority. Bengtson and the HRA will be administering the grant for the city, a role it has played several times.
The program also allows the funds to be used for streetscape and beautification projects in eligible cities.
“They wanted to find other ways to help cities,” Bengtson said.
While the Small Cities money cannot be used for items such as street repairs and reconstruction, the help it provides cities in funding the specified projects allows other funds to be freed up for streets and other city services.
“It is one of the major programs that can be tapped into,” Bengtson said. “It is a very popular and competitive program.”
Willmar and Kandiyohi County have had success obtaining grants. In addition to the large 2018 award, there were also grants awarded in 2012 and 2009. Some of the grants have also been in partnership with other cities, including Raymond, Atwater and Pennock.
“It is a great program for communities,” Bengtson said. “We’ve been fortunate that when we speak with communities, they want to buy in.”
With the Small Cities Grant program, communities are able to keep homes and businesses safe and help owners be successful.
“It helps stabilize tax values of a community,” Bengtson said. “It helps make the community look attractive and attract new homeowners.”
While the money for the 2018 grant award has not yet been released, the city already has an extensive waiting list of homeowners and business owners interested in taking advantage of the program. Bengtson said the 2018 grant should fund approximately 13 residential and 13 commercial projects. The waiting list has 36 businesses and 43 homes.
“If people weren’t interested in the program, we wouldn’t be receiving funding,” Bengtson said.
The target area for the 2018 grant for residential properties is north of Pacific Avenue Southwest to Park Avenue Northwest and from 17th Street Northwest to just east of Seventh Street Northwest. Eligible businesses would be located in the commercial target area of Pacific Avenue to Trott Avenue Southwest and from First Street South to Seventh Street Southwest.
The target areas for both projects were chosen because many of those structures will need to install new heating systems due to the decommission of the city’s district heating program in July 2020.
“The heating is influencing it,” Bengtson said. However, she also feels people are starting to understand the program. “People are more aware of how it works.”
Each project that is chosen for the program will receive a deferred loan for part of the project cost. The owner of the property will have to come up with the remaining funds needed. If the homeowner lives in the home for 10 years, or the business owner owns the building for seven years, the loan will be forgiven. There are income requirements for homeowners.
As Bengtson works on the 2018 grant, she is also going through the application process for a 2019 Small Cities grant request of $750,000. This one would be for a rehabilitation project at Lakeview Apartments on Seventh Street Northwest and streetscape improvements in downtown Willmar, including helping to fund new streetlights.
Usually, there is at least a two-year break between applications for Small Cities, but with the two projects in the wings, the city decided to go ahead and try again in 2019.
“I was very nervous, for the pre-application,” Bengtson said. “We had received a large grant last year.”
DEED ended up scoring Willmar’s 2019 pre-application in the highest tier, a good sign for the full application, due at the end of February.
“It was very encouraging,” Bengtson said. “But, it is not a guarantee.”
Grant awards for 2019 requests will be announced in June.
West Central Tribune by Shelby Lindrud