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Healthy competition: Why Greater Minnesota cities are investing in sports and recreation

Willmar and other Minnesota towns want to attract professionals, young families and others who might be looking for an alternative to the suburbs.

Tony Amon, left, and Matt Dawson
Tony Amon, left, and Matt Dawson are part of a group of Willmar residents that pushed for a local sales tax increase that will pay for enhancements to the city’s athletic and recreation facilities.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot

Twenty-five years ago, Tony Amon and his wife, Mary, both physicians, joined a small family practice clinic in Willmar, the seat of Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota. They liked the lakes and open spaces of the region and have never left, raising their four children there.

Yet, like many people rooted in rural places, Tony Amon worries about his city’s future – especially its ability to attract professionals, young families and others who might be looking for an alternative to the suburbs. It’s been five years, he noted, since a new doctor has taken a job in town.

“We need to make Willmar an attractive place so that people will want to come out here and will want to live here,” he said.

On an early afternoon in May, Amon met me at a Willmar sandwich shop to talk about an ad-hoc group called Invest in Willmar that had led a grassroots campaign to raise the city’s sales tax for recreation and athletics upgrades. We were joined by another member of the group, Matt Dawson, an insurance agent who grew up in Willmar, lived in the Twin Cities for several years and then returned with his wife, Lisa, and their three children. (Disclosure: Dawson is a longtime friend of mine).

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The $30 million initiative their group helped to see through includes four projects that revolve around recreation and athletics, including enhancements to a civic center (the city’s ice arena), artificial turf-covered athletic fields, and renovations to a baseball and softball complex.

“Trails, biking, parks and recreation – people considering places to live look for all of those things,” Amon told me.

It’s an ambitious project for this community of 21,000 residents – one that, as the men recalled, had modest beginnings.

About two years ago, Amon had a discussion with the high school’s head football coach about the need for some artificial turf-covered fields. From there, the two began to bounce ideas off of their friends over card games of 500, getting a feel for what might be possible. Dawson, part of that card group, took an interest in the plan.

Those informal discussions led to the formation of Invest in Willmar. The group eventually brought a proposal to the City Council, which – after several discussions and after adding two non-recreation projects to the plan, including upgrades to a stormwater runoff system – agreed to put the question to the voters in a referendum during last November’s general elections.

Before the referendum, Amon shared PowerPoint presentations with the Lions Club and other groups while Invest in Willmar volunteers canvassed the city’s neighborhoods and shared information on Facebook. The work paid off.

Willmar Civic Center
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
The Willmar Civic Center, home ice for the local high school’s hockey teams as well as a club in the North American 3 Hockey League, dates back decades.
Residents approved the half-percent sales tax hike with 60 percent of the vote. The Legislature (which must sign off on such so-called “local option sales taxes”) then included the Willmar initiative in a comprehensive tax bill that was passed during the recently completed special session and signed by Gov. Tim Walz.

Despite Willmar’s advantages as a regional center and county seat, Amon and Dawson both said they believed the community could offer more – especially in the ever-popular sports-and-recreation realm. That’s why they got involved. “I was just a little bit frustrated and thought we needed to be more forward-thinking in some ways,” Amon said.

‘Sports tourism’

Minnesota cities routinely ask their residents, through referendums, for temporary sales tax increases to pay for new libraries, renovated city halls or other infrastructure projects. Last fall, predictably, several of those requests appeared on the ballot; interestingly, a handful of them earmarked the money for sports and recreation.

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Worthington, a city in the southwestern corner of the state, passed and won legislative approval for a sales tax increase that will be used for a new outdoor pool, an indoor recreation facility, a pavilion and renovations to its ice arena. The half-percent sales tax increase is expected to generate $25 million over 15 years.

Virginia, on the Iron Range, passed and won legislative approval for a sales tax hike that is expected to raise $30 million, some of which will be used for the renovation of Miners Memorial Building – the city’s ice arena and convention center. Meanwhile, the Legislature also approved a sales tax hike for Elk River, a growing city in the northwestern outskirts of the Twin Cities, that is expected to raise $35 million for an ice arena and an artificial turf-covered field, among other projects.

Elected officials and residents alike see similar benefits to such initiatives: as draws for professionals and other workers; as ways to boost the local economy (especially during the winter); as good-faith efforts to accommodate changing tastes in sports, such as a greater interest in soccer that is often driven by immigrants.

Seven years ago, the city of Marshall asked voters to approve a sales tax for the construction of a multi-use ice arena, as well as a training center for law enforcement workers and other emergency personnel. The referendum that appeared on the ballot also sought a tax on food and beverage sales – funds that would pay for the operation of the arena and training center. Both measures passed with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Robert Byrnes, who has served as Marshall’s mayor for 27 years, said the debate over those measures largely centered on economic development. The Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission also provided a nudge, Byrnes noted, by encouraging cities in southwestern Minnesota to build a complex that could host hockey tournaments. (Marshall is the county seat of Lyon County and its largest city, with about 14,000 residents).

In retrospect, Byrnes called the results “phenomenal” and said the city now hosts many hockey tournaments that bring teams to town from all over the state, as well as Iowa and South Dakota. The Red Baron Arena & Expo has two sheets of ice; one of them is removed during the summer so that part of the civic center can be used for trade shows and other business activities.

Marshall also has a well-regarded baseball stadium that hosts many high school, college and amateur-league baseball games and tournaments (and sits near a community pool and skateboard park).

“Our goal was to get visitors to the community, so the arena was built to attract sports tournaments,” Byrnes said, noting that it also, of course, benefits residents who play hockey or watch high school games at the arena. Before, he said, “our hotel properties were largely filled during the week with business travelers, but the weekends had vacancies. We don’t have lakes, etc., around here, so our draw is ‘sports tourism.’ Families will travel with their youngsters for tournaments.”

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‘Another tool’

Though cities often pay for projects through statewide bonding bills, the local option sales tax has become a popular alternative. (More than a dozen cities got legislative approval for such taxes this year – not all of them for recreation or sports projects – including Blue Earth, Sartell and International Falls).

In Willmar’s case, the sales tax will increase to 7.875 percent, with the extra half-percent slated to expire in 13 years.

Said Byrnes: “It’s a good tool for regional communities like Willmar or Worthington that really serve a larger population than the population that is paying taxes into their community.” People from 30 or 40 miles away will travel to those towns for retail, he noted, adding to the cities’ sales tax receipts.

Worthington, Willmar, Virginia
Worthington, Willmar, Virginia
Daniel Erkkila, who studies the tourism industry for the University of Minnesota Extension, said more communities are beginning to “see that (local sales) taxation piece as another tool that other communities have been using to get some additional dollars for specific uses.” Recreation facilities can help communities broaden their brand while enhancing their economies, he said.

“Millennials and Gen Xers – they’ll take jobs in these locations that might not max out their economic potential,” he said. “They’ll go there for a lot of those attributes – a small-town feel, good school systems, clean water – that we champion in Minnesota.”

In Minnesota, locally approved sales taxes must also get the backing of the Legislature – a process that can lead to some uncertainty. The size of Willmar’s proposal, for instance, was scaled back by several million dollars in one legislative committee before the full amount was ultimately restored.

Moreover, lawmakers must weigh their support of local projects against their position on larger bills in which those projects are included.

State Rep. Dave Baker, a Republican who represents the Willmar area, supported the Willmar initiative but ultimately voted against the comprehensive tax bill (in which the tax hike was included) that was negotiated by Democratic Gov. Tim Walz and GOP leaders. (Baker had hoped that local option sales tax measures could have been voted on independently of the broad tax bill).

At the same time, the Willmar businessman understands that Greater Minnesota cities are looking for ways to remain attractive and competitive.

“I think communities know that they have to do some infrastructure improvements if they are going to recruit good doctors and teachers and all of the folks that make communities better,” he said. “Those communities want to grow and make rural Minnesota fabulous and a great place to live.”

Resistance on the Range

At least one community rejected such an effort last fall. In Grand Rapids, on the southwestern edge of the Iron Range, leaders had hoped residents would approve a local sales tax bump for civic center improvements and other recreational projects. The measure failed, 60 percent to 40 percent.

The revenue would have paid for a sports training and rehabilitation center at the IRA Civic Center (the city’s ice arena), as well as for artificial turf at a local baseball field, which would have allowed it to be used for activities other than baseball. The funds would also have been used to build locker rooms at the civic center and to add day care slots, a Boys & Girls Club and an indoor playground to the arena.

Supporters of that proposal also couched it in economic development terms. A hockey mecca, for instance, Grand Rapids hosts a dozen weekend tournaments during the winter, city administrator Tom Pagel said. Otherwise, for the hospitality industry, “it’s tough to make a buck from November first to June first,” he said.

Also, like many small towns, the community is trying to figure out ways to create more day care slots for the children of working parents.

Pagel described Grand Rapids voters as Blue Dog Democrat-types – fiscally conservative and wary of the price tag for certain government initiatives. “The community believes it has a day care issue – they just don’t want the city involved in it. It believes in a Boys & Girls Club – they just don’t want it at the hockey arena,” he said.

He added: “The problem now is that the need doesn’t go away, so you start to think about other ways to fund it.”

Modern facilities

On the morning I visited with Amon and Dawson, Willmar found itself in the national discussion, thanks to a New York Times column by Minnesota-raised Thomas Friedman about the city’s growing ethnic diversity and its efforts to respond to that demographic change. Indeed, that diversity, in part, fueled the push for the sports and recreation projects – especially the athletic fields (one of which is expected to be covered with a dome during cold-weather months) that will, no doubt, be used by soccer-playing Latinos and Somalis.

Willmar has long had an extensive network of sports and recreation facilities, but many are decades old.

For instance, its well-used Swansson Field Recreational Complex, which includes several softball diamonds and a baseball field with bleachers, was built in the 1970s. (The main baseball stadium in town was renovated more than a decade ago, which helped to attract the Willmar Stingers, a Northwoods League franchise that features top college players). Meanwhile, the Willmar Civic Center, home ice for the local high school’s hockey teams as well as a club in the North American 3 Hockey League, also dates back decades.

Citizen-led task forces will now meet to hammer out the details of the plans. The new revenue will also fund trail enhancements at Robbins Island Regional Park – a popular picnic and trails destination on the shores of Foot Lake – and a new, yet-to-be defined community center.

Amon and Dawson, of Invest in Willmar, credit many residents with the referendum’s success, including high school coaches who dispatched their players, armed with pamphlets, to neighborhoods around town.

Robbins Island Regional Park
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
New revenue will also fund trail enhancements at Robbins Island Regional Park, a popular picnic and trails destination on the shores of Foot Lake.
Dawson knocked on doors himself in the weeks leading to the fall vote – not to make a hard sell, he said, but rather to “provide people with some information,” confident that the proposal made sense for the community. Then he traveled to St. Paul during the winter to appear before two legislative committees that were considering the Willmar proposal.

“People stepped up to do things for us,” said Dawson, reflecting on his years growing up in Willmar, playing tennis and hockey at its various parks. This was a chance for the next generation to build on that legacy. “It doesn’t just happen,” he said.

This report was made possible by a grant from the Otto Bremer Trust. MinnPost’s donors, foundation funders, and corporate sponsors support our work in the belief that promoting greater civic engagement and informed discourse is the surest path to a better Minnesota. They play no role in guiding the journalism produced by MinnPost.