WORTHINGTON - Mike Kuhle has been Worthington’s mayor for a little more than nine months, and multiple challenges have already come into focus.
“The first challenge was hiring a city administrator,” reflected Kuhle in a Tuesday interview at the Daily Globe. “For our city to run, we need someone with great leadership in that position. I believe when all was said and done and going through all the interviews, Worthington really picked the best person for the job.
“Steve Robinson is very professional, and he has a lot of experience with city projects and other cities around the state as well as a few other states in his previous job. “He’s even-keeled and thinks things through before acting. He’s been just a tremendous help to the city of Worthington. I believe all city staff would agree with that, as well as all council members.”
Kuhle noted that Robinson had been hired by the city six months prior to his city administrator appointment as public works director, and demonstrated considerable knowledge and ability in that position. He’s showing the same qualities as city administrator, Kuhle added.
“He’s a native of Worthington and understands our history, and understands our challenges over the years and moving forward,” Kuhle said.
Almost certainly the biggest challenge is stimulating economic development in the city, which is made toughest, the mayor said, by government’s slow nature in moving things along. That said, Kuhle said his top priority this year continues to be advancing redevelopment of the property formerly known as Northland Mall.
Mall redevelopment: ‘It will be done’
In discussing the plan to move forward with developer Brian Pellowski and rejuvenate a site now known as Promenade on Oxford, Kuhle reflected on what needed to be done to get where the project currently stands.
“Mr. (Mike) Kohan was going to be looking at a substantial tax bill and unpaid taxes over the last three to six years, and also any potential liabilities on the property, whether it was environmental or those types of things,” recalled Kuhle, speaking of the former Northland Mall owner and the coordinated effort it took to get him to sell.
“It was tough to get him (Kohan) to the table, and it was important to do that,” Kuhle continued. “The city had a lien on the mall itself, but the mall property consists of seven different parcels. He (Kohan) was trying to sell off those different parcels … and it would have been detrimental because we needed the whole property together so we could make it (potential property redevelopment) to be feasible and to move forward.”
Kuhle said he knew it was “going to be a painful situation for Worthington” because Kohan had let property fall into such disrepair with few tenants remaining. Yet, little or nothing could be done without gaining control of the entire mall property.
Now, with a developer on board with a plan that includes both retail and housing on the property, the work toward redevelopment is beginning, though Kuhle concedes it is slow.
“I believe Mr. Pellowski is a good partner to work on this,” Kuhle said. “Having said that, there are some challenges moving forward in financing and making the project feasible. Those are details we can’t get into, but we’re working hard and a lot of staff time has been dedicated to this.”
Kuhle explained the city is in the process of obtaining a market assessment on the property based on the improvements being proposed. That would give the city an amount of money it could use in the establishment of a TIF (tax increment financing) district.
“We’re not sure if all expenses are eligible for TIF funding. … I think demo is part of it, utilities I think are part of it,” he said.
“TIF funding is a good economic development tool for cities for use for projects such as this. The eligible expenses are paid back to the city over the life of the TIF. After the process of determining how much TIF funding is available for the project, the developer will then move forward or try to find other financial partners to move forward.”
Kuhle said the assessment should be completed by the county within the next few weeks. Once that’s done, it will be provided to the developer.
“We will have to enter into a development agreement that spells out the TIF funding, spells out some other factors and also tells us what all the financial partners are for the project,” Kuhle said. “It’s got to be realistic, it‘s got to be feasible.
“I know the developer has his own timeline. I‘ve heard from his timeline that the mall needs to be torn down by Nov. 1, but I’m not sure that’s realistic. It’s all depending on market assessment and the development agreement entered into by the city and developer.”
The Worthington City Council approved a $1.2 million loan to the developer in May that will come due in May 2016, Kuhle said. That means “time is of the essence here,” the mayor added, noting that the former Northland Mall property is pledged as collateral.
Kuhle was pleased to note that back property taxes were netted as a result of the mall sale, and that Pellowski already has an agreement in place with “a large retailer” and is working with a Twin Cities-based apartment development business that could be providing as many as 96 new apartments at the Promenade on Oxford site. He’s also confident the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) will work the city on traffic flow issues involved with redevelopment.
“Last year sometime MnDOT had talked to city staff about the traffic light out there … and it coming to the end of its useful life,” the mayor explained of the traffic signal removed earlier this year.
“Steve Robinson and myself and Dwayne Haffield met with our district engineer. … We met with him on Friday (Sept. 11) just to give him ... our concerns. We understand traffic’s not there … but the city has been working on that site to get it redeveloped and the traffic light will be needed. MnDOT’s response is that they will work with the city depending on how the property is developed.
“There are a lot of problems with the underground infrastructure of the light, and they (MnDOT) were saying they weren’t sure it would make it through another winter. They want to work with the city, and we’ve got their assurances that they’re going to work with us on that.”
Though redevelopment of the mall property may seem like a distant dream to some, Kuhle said it will happen - eventually.
“We’re going to work hard to get this done,” he said. “It will be done; we need to do something. The city council is committed, the staff is committed. I just wish it would move faster.”
What to do with Prairie View
Also getting plenty of Kuhle’s attention, not to mention city staff and Worthington residents, is the ongoing conversation about the future of Prairie View Golf Links. The 18-hole course has been operating with high losses for multiple years.
“Back in the ’80s, when the golf course (Prairie View) got brought up for a vote, the (Worthington) country club had a waiting list, there were no courses in Adrian or Fulda or no expanded course in Sibley,” Kuhle said. “There were a lot more golfers in Worthington at that time.
With the sale of Worthington Country Club to GreatLIFE resulting in a second 18-hole public golf course in the city, the decision was made to form a committee to study multiple issues involved in Prairie View’s operation.
“We felt it was really important that this should not be a council decision only,” Kuhle said. “That’s why we set up a committee, and we have ... a well-rounded committee with different interests. But they all have one thing in common - they’re taxpayers.”
The committee began meeting in February and has done a lot of work, explained Kuhle, including looking at Prairie View’s financial history and how golf opportunities have changed in the city of Worthington and surrounding region. A report by Wenck Associates was also completed to assess the facility’s watershed capabilities.
“The committee met monthly and put a lot of time and thought into this,” said Kuhle, adding that the committee ultimately recommended to fully decommission the course.
“The council has had one work session on it and has directed staff to look for any potential opportunities to sell the property while also protecting the watershed capabilities of that golf course,” the mayor said. “We need to maintain what we’ve been doing for 20 to 25 years as far as filtering water coming into the city of Worthington from the north and the west.”
Kuhle suggested money that has gone into operating Prairie View - up to $200,000 annually, he said - could be budgeted instead for other areas, with lake improvement being an appealing possibility.
“I’ve heard a lot of comments on the council to keep those funds and use them for recreational opportunities, which the lake would fall under,” Kuhle said. “We would have to have partnerships with the watershed board, the DNR, the Lake Okabena Improvement Association. . … We’ve got to keep working on it (lake). It’s an asset, and it always ranks as No. 1 in the assets of the city. Everyone has an interest; it’s just a matter of how do we get there.”
Kuhle added that Prairie View currently is fully allocated in the 2016 budget for another season, and that he’s hopeful for at least some golf at the course in the future.
“I’ve directed Steve Robinson to come and look at potential partners,” he said. “My goal has always been to see if we can find a partner to operate a nine-hole course out there. … The other part would potentially involving the watershed board, DNR and Pheasants Forever, and the goal would be to keep quality of the watershed. What I’d like to see is a private operator come in and lease the course for a minimal fee and run a nine-hole course out there.
“A lot of money and time into the course over the years,” Kuhle continued. “We need to continue to take our time and make sure we make the right decisions.
Law enforcement, and other positives
In addition to discussing the city’s primary challenges during his first year as mayor, Kuhle was eager to point out some positive personnel moves.
“Troy Appel was hired last fall and he has brought tremendous leadership to the Worthington police force,” Kuhle said of the police chief that replaced the retiring Mike Cumiskey. “He spends a lot of time working on cultural diversity issues, and getting our police department at full strength and getting them to work with our community. He developed the Blue in the School program and enhanced that some. He’s always encouraging his officers to get out and play with some of those kids … and to be more interactive in the community.
“I’m just so thankful that Troy Appel and Kevin Flynn are in charge of our police department,” he went on. “We’ve all heard a lot in six months or more about police issues in other communities, but I wholeheartedly believe we have the best police force in Minnesota and even the nation. I commend our leadership down to the patrolmen on the street on the job they’ve done.
Appel came to the police department from the Buffalo Ridge Task Force, which Kuhle said he led to statewide prominence. His connection to the task force remains and he assists in public safety.
Both Appel and Robinson “understand the issues, and understand the city of Worthington” and “represent new leadership in city government,” praised Kuhle, who also gave plenty of kudos to Worthington Public Utilities General Manager Scott Hain for securing additional Lewis and Clark funding during the 2015 legislative session.
Kuhle also commended Robinson for his hiring of Todd Wietzema as the city’s new public works director, hailing it as “a great opportunity to promote from within,” and added that Robinson had spent time continuing in the public works director role even while serving as city administrator.
Additionally, the mayor noted that joint meetings between the city council, Nobles County Board of Commissioners and District 518 Board of Education have been taking - and will continue to - take place.
“We’re really about all working with other entities and working out solutions,” Kuhle said. “When it comes to our partners, like the county and the school district, we all have to remember we’re working for the same taxpayer. What’s good for one is good for the other.
“Things you’re going to see in the next 5-10 years that are going to come out of these meetings ... are sharing of services, personnel, equipment. ... There are all kinds of opportunities to work together.”