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Year in review: Council plans take shape in 2009

WORTHINGTON -- It's been a long year of projects and planning for the Worthington City Council.

Beginning with last December's announcement that the city would be unallotted a portion of its local government aid payment, city staff scrambled to reduce costs where they could, presenting ideas that would cut anywhere from a few dollars to thousands from each department's budget.

Ultimately, the city dipped into budget reserves to help cover that deficit; and used interest earned from last year's hospital sale to help balance its 2010 budget. Discussion on how the rest of those proceeds will be spent is ongoing -- funding everything from a sports complex to a new fire hall has been suggested.

In February, the council commissioned a $7,000 golf course study aimed at improving operations at Prairie View Golf Links, which faces declining revenues. Suggestions included better marketing of the course and providing youth golf opportunities.

Meanwhile, a committee tasked with developing plans for a new senior citizens' center was formed after council declared its support for a long-awaited permanent gathering place for seniors. The committee has met throughout the year in typical grassroots fashion, first in the basement of the former MC Fitness facility, then at the new senior center in the former Quizno's on Oxford Street starting in July.

Committee members have developed programming at the new location, starting weekly card games and presentations about issues relevant to seniors and caregivers. They've also begun fundraising efforts, namely a 2010 calendar featuring local seniors. Now, the council is giving serious consideration to using the former Worthington Area YMCA property as a permanent home for the senior/community center: the gymnasium would be retained while the older portion of the building would be demolished and a new building constructed in its place, with the city footing at least part of the bill.

"There's a city role to be played in the demolition of the structure," said City Administrator Craig Clark; council members have said they want to ensure the site is redeveloped properly.

2009 also saw the delay of the two projects approved by voters in the Nov. 4, 2008, general election: a $1.9-million renovation and addition to the Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center and the construction of a $3.5-million Worthington Events Center.

The construction bids for the Memorial Auditorium project came in over budget and were rejected by the council in April. Since then, the Memorial Auditorium Renovation Committee and project architect Short Elliott Hendrickson Inc. have been seeking ways to cut project costs before re-letting bids this spring.

The city had entered into a memorandum of understanding with Ruhr Development for the events center project (which would include an adjoining hotel financed by the developer), but a change in lending requirements put hotel construction on hold earlier this year.

"Investors are really wanting their cash to be liquid, and the hotel industry is generally a long-term investment," Clark said. Now, One Companies has expressed an interest in the project, and the council in December approved a $25,000 feasibility study for the events center-hotel complex.

"When we went through the process, Ruhr Development said that they would be willing to do the feasibility themselves," Clark explained. But with Ruhr stepping back, the city is back to square one when it comes to the study.

"(The study is) our information so ... whatever company we end up choosing, we have that feasibility study to market the hotel and event center as a package," Clark said. "If we were to sign a contract tomorrow, just the pure construction timeline would take (16 to 18 months). When we went to the voters, we told them that we would build an events center, but we also told them that it would be in partnership with a private developer to build the hotel; So there's those two kind of conflicting things that we're not in sole control of."

A number of initiatives were accomplished this year: the opening of the City of Worthington Aquatic Center chief among them. The 17-35 runway at the municipal airport was reconstructed, phase one of the Minnesota 60 project was approved, improvements were made at the Bioscience Park incubator, and plats were approved for Hy-Vee Food Stores, Fareway and the Morning View Addition, a housing project on Cecilee Street.

In September, the council met in special session as the city's Economic Development Authority to authorize a special tax levy of $86,000 to be collected in 2010 for economic development costs.

The city recently completed its several-month strategic planning process, which it hopes will give direction to both council members and city staff. The process identified redevelopment of the former Campbell's Soup property, and subsequent building of a new fire hall; and completion of a senior/community center as among the top priorities.

"I think the key thing is ... we're setting up processes that allow for better processing of goals and objectives by council; and trying to create awareness of different tasks (city) staff is occupied by," Clark said. "We talked about how we can do a few projects really well or lots of projects not so well. And being able to focus and do a quality job on them I think makes us more effective."