WORTHINGTON — Thanks to the failure of the Minnesota Legislature to pass a bill funding public construction projects across the state, the future of the collaborative W.E.L.L. project remains uncertain.
The Welcome, Education, Library and Livability facility — with the city of Worthington, Nobles County and ISD 518 as participating entities — carries a likely price tag of between $30 million and $32 million, according to past reports in The Globe. As of November 2019, the school district had committed $12.5 million for the project, the county had committed $8.5 million and the city had offered $1.5 million, leaving the project far short of its needed funding.
On March 3, County Administrator Tom Johnson and Nobles County Commissioner Matt Widboom testified in a House Capital Investment Committee meeting in support of the bill. Things were looking favorable at that time, Johnson suggested.
“Rod Hamilton (District 22 Rep.) was the one that actually got the time to testify for us,” Johnson remembered Monday. “Hamilton ... was at the table, and things went very well.”
Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, also wrote House File 3466, which asked for bonding toward the W.E.L.L. But while the W.E.L.L. 's prospects looked good in the House, and the project was included in Gov. Tim Walz’s bonding proposal (to the tune of $16 million), the Senate was a different matter.
As the legislative session neared its conclusion Sunday, the Republican-controlled Senate failed to pass its $998 million bonding bill. That legislation, Johnson said, did not contain any allotment for the W.E.L.L.
Meanwhile, a $2 billion bonding measure introduced by Democrats in the House — a bill that did include W.E.L.L. dollars — failed to get the required three-fifths margin necessary to pass such legislation. The vote was 75-58 — six votes short.
“What’s most likely going to happen now will happen behind closed doors in committee,” Johnson said Monday of potential W.E.L.L. funding. “It’s going to come down to what gets negotiated.”
With the House and Senate far apart on bonding bill totals, it remains to be seen if any sort of deal is reached. A special session seems likely next month, and an agreement on bonding could still be reached ahead of its start.
If any 2020 bonding bill skips the W.E.L.L., Johnson doesn’t see a way forward for the project.
“There’s enough apprehension in the economy right now,” said Johnson, adding he wouldn’t be surprised at a hesitancy to take on added debt for the facility. “It’s all how we want to look at it and how we want to invest in our future.”
New Ellsworth building waits, too
Walz had also included $1.345 million for a new Ellsworth City Hall in his bonding proposal. The community’s 115-year-old city hall building was destroyed by fire in January 2019.
Ellsworth Mayor Tasha Domeyer said Tuesday morning that she wasn’t sure whether or not the money had been included in either the House or Senate packages. Work on the city hall project is nearly complete, she added, but plans for a community/rec center to be attached to the city hall remain up in the air.
“Right now at this point, we’re just finishing city hall because that’s all taken care of,” Domeyer said. “The community center … the bigger part, will probably be on hold. I know we’ve been doing some fundraising, but it will be on hold for now.”