WORTHINGTON — City council members are ready to begin the W.E.L.L. project when the other participating entities agree to undertake it, they decided at a work session Wednesday.
The W.E.L.L. project between the city, Nobles County and Independent School District 518 has been in the works for a number of years. The proposed building would span 83,800 square feet and include space for all three entities in various capacities. Other potential tenants include the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce and Nobles County Art Center.
To help fund the project, Nobles County has requested $18 million in state bonding funds, to be considered during the 2020 legislative session. However, the county board has not yet officially voted to participate in the project.
“We believe in collaboration. We believe in the project,” Mayor Mike Kuhle said.
Kuhle expressed concern is that “the city is getting overextended” and said he’d like to see the county and the school district take the lead on the project, with some involvement from the city.
Council members were in general agreement with Kuhle’s assessment.
Before moving forward, city council members needed to discuss a number of variables, including site availability, cost and zoning. District 518 Superintendent John Landgaard and Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson were also present to explain the positions of the county and the district.
Director of Community Development, Planning, Zoning and Building Services Jason Brisson clarified that the city's comprehensive land use plan designates the parcel in question for a community center, but the area is zoned for downtown commercial use. He recommended following the comprehensive plan over zoning code when deciding to place the project in the proposed location.
"Frankly," said council member Chad Cummings, "I'm all for the site being used. I just have a fear of this three-step monster."
The "three-step monster," as he called it, is the complicated nature of combining the efforts of three entities that have three separate timelines. Landgaard confirmed that the district is ready to proceed whenever the others are ready. City council members added that they are ready to begin, as well.
"It seems like we're waiting on the county commissioners to make up their minds," Cummings said.
Johnson said the commissioners "are committed to the project," although he confirmed that they have not yet voted to participate. He added that if the county is able to secure the $18 million in bonding next year, the commissioners would feel more comfortable lending their support.
Construction cannot begin until design is completed, and design cannot start until all project participants and their facility needs are confirmed.
The proposed project timeline plans for design to be completed by March 2020, with groundbreaking in June 2020 and opening in May 2021. In order to meet those objectives, the county commissioners would have to declare support before the next legislative session is over.
Worthington City Administrator Steve Robinson said the city cannot vote definitively to support the project until a detailed planning study, which will inform storm water plans and blueprints for the facility, is completed. He indicated that this study is the next step in the process.
Council member Amy Ernst expressed optimism for the project.
"The opportunity we have here is amazing and probably unprecedented in the state of Minnesota," she said. "We just have to figure out how to do it."
The discussion did not result in action. The council will vote during its regular meeting on June 24.