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State of the city: Worthington Mayor Kuhle reflects on multiple projects, initiatives

WORTHINGTON -- After a hectic election cycle, things seem to be calming down a bit. Still, there is much to talk about when it comes to local and state issues.

WORTHINGTON - After a hectic election cycle, things seem to be calming down a bit. Still, there is much to talk about when it comes to local and state issues.

  That’s why Mayor Mike Kuhle stopped by the Daily Globe on Wednesday to give his thoughts on a number of projects and issues relevant to the city of Worthington.

School referendum After the $79 million bond referendum to build a new high school was decidedly rejected by a vote of 3,664 to 1,957, many city leaders wondered why it was so widely opposed.

  “Everyone I talk to, whether they were voting no or yes, agree there’s a space issue,” Kuhle said. “People just didn’t feel this was the right solution.”

  Kuhle said he was involved in early input sessions and was disappointed in seeing very few people from the community give their thoughts on initial plans for a new school. Next time, Kuhle said, that will have to change.

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  “We need to get more community leaders involved, coming together and working with the school board from the very beginning,” he said. “There needs to be representatives from the no-vote people, the business community and rural areas, and all sides need to have an open mind.”

  Kuhle also said it was a problem that all four ISD 518 school board members up for election ran unopposed.

  “I don't fault the people on the school board; they’re all hard-working and have good intentions,” he said. “But we need more people to step up and run for those elected offices.”

Housing A housing study done in 2013 showed Worthington needs approximately 500 additional units by 2020. Through the Nobles Home Initiative - which provides developers with five years tax abatement - the city has seen more housing development, especially this year.

  North Development Group plans to build a 72-unit market rate apartment complex on the Grand Avenue extension, using the tax abatement. South Lake Development, aided by the initiative, plans to build nine duplexes by Knollwood Drive. With help from the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, Rising Sun Estates is building a 48-unit market rate apartment complex west of the extension.

  Minnesota West Community and Technical College is also anticipating its first on-campus housing. The school hopes to build 110 to 120 beds for student use by spring 2018.

  “That's when that campus is going to start to grow,” Kuhle said. “It’s not only going to help the campus but housing within the city of Worthington - it relieves the pressure there.”

  With these kinds of projects emerging, Kuhle said the city is “well on its way” to the 2020 goal.

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  “Some of these projects wouldn’t have happened without this incentive,” he added.

  Despite the increase in development, affordable workforce housing - something the study emphasized as a major need - has not emerged.

  “It costs the same to build an apartment in Worthington as it does in Minneapolis or Sioux Falls, which means we have to charge similar rates for rent,” Kuhle said. “Because of that, affordable housing is difficult to achieve in communities our size.”

  Kuhle said he hopes the Minnesota Legislature will create tax credits for affordable housing to make it feasible for developers.

Movie theater The city recently completed its memorandum of understanding with PBK Investments for the purchase of land off U.S. 59 and Bioscience Drive that will be the foundation for a new movie theater. The theatre will feature four 50-seat screens and one 99-seat screen.

  Kuhle addressed concerns about the theatre’s location.

  “Is it the best location? Maybe, maybe not,” he said. “But that's not the city’s job to decide. If it fits within the classification and the developers can make it work on that site, the city can’t step in.”

  Kuhle is hopeful the theater will be a success, as a nice theater is something the city has been lacking for years.

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  “I'm excited about it, I hope it works out well,” he said. “We need a theater, and we need it bad.

It’s one of those things that residents really want - I get so many calls about it.”

  “I'm told by owner of the hotel he's going have a restaurant on the property within a year,” Kuhle added.

Liquor store The city recently entered into a purchase agreement to buy the former Dollar General store property at 1190 Ryan’s Road for $1 million, where it plans to build a new liquor store.

  “This is not something that just came up yesterday,” Kuhle said. “This has been something talked about by city staff for eight years or better.”

  Kuhle said the store contributes $225,000 a year to the tax levy to help reduce taxes of Worthington residents. Kuhle praised manager Dan Wycoff for raising sales every year since he started in 2010, but said “he's done everything he can” with the store’s current location.

  “With a new location, with more traffic and people on their way into town, out of town, there’s impulse-buying potential there,” Kuhle said. “Also, a bigger store allows more area for more products and events like wine tasting and beer tasting. If we had a manager that was just what I would call a ‘caretaker manager,’ just there to open and close the doors, I wouldn’t spend the money to upgrade the location, but Dan is a person who will take advantage.”

  The new store won’t cost taxpayers anything. The $1.75 million project will be funded by existing liquor store reserves saved for the new store and future profits.

  “With such a better location, the store can almost pay for the move and increase the amount to the levy and help pay for new amenities,” Kuhle said. “Once they have building paid off, they can increase significantly - I’m thinking 50 or 60 percent - over what the contributions are right now to the levy.”

  Once the new location is completed, the old location - two-thirds of which is used for public utilities - will be dedicated to public utilities and public works.

Oxford Street “Oxford Street redevelopment is coming, slowly but surely,” Kuhle said.

  Kuhle was excited about a Papa Murphy’s business coming to Oxford, and discussed a potential idea to get more businesses to establish themselves in the area.

  “I’ve been talking to the Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp. about developing an investment group in town, an LLC that people put money into,” Kuhle said. “It's an investment, not a grant. What we need is that private investment to help redevelop these because the city can't just come in and buy something for a developer.”

  The former Northland Mall was purchased by Yellow Company LLC in February. Although Kuhle said he was disappointed the project to redevelop the mall isn’t further along, he was excited about the new Marthaler dealership that is near completion.

  “We have a new developer in there now,” Kuhle added. “He's built a new dealership. It's a beautiful building; a great start. Now he’s engaging civil engineers to come up with a site plan for the rest of the property and locate retail businesses to move in there.”

St. Paul problems Kuhle said the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System was a top priority in restoring the water quality of Lake Okabena and delivering water to as many people as possible.

  He thanked District 22 Sen.. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, and District 22B Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, for getting the issue to the top of the bonding list. Legislators agreed that Worthington would receive the pipeline in the bonding bill, but St. Paul politicians ultimately could not come to an agreement on the bonding bill and it didn’t pass.

  Kuhle hoped St. Paul politicians will approve funding to get the city clean water during its next session.

  “We need a steady supply of water for everything,” Kuhle said. “It’s not only economic development, it’s a quality-of-life issue for the citizens of Worthington. If they are constantly under water restrictions, that doesn't help the morale.”

  Kuhle also hopes to have the half-cent local option sales tax extended for another 10 years. The tax allowed the city funding to do things such as upgrade Memorial Auditorium and build the event center.

  Last time, the sales tax easily passed by a referendum vote. Kuhle said he wouldn’t mind it going to a vote again.

  “Whether that has to go to a referendum, I have no problems with that because this community will step up,” he said. “As long as we've got projects identified for a new 10-year plan, I think the residents of Worthington will do that.”

City council shakeup Kuhle offered praise for council members Scott Nelson, Diane Graber and Rod Sankey, who will all be leaving their positions in January.

  “Scott’s been on there eight years and he works hard at it,” he said. “He’s a good decision maker, but he felt it was time to move on. Diane works hard. She's compassionate - she really cares about the city of Worthington. Rod stepped up and did a really good job; it's important that we thank those people.”

  He also took time to address new council members Chad Cummings, Alan Oberloh and Amy Ernst.

  “They’re going to be ambitious,” he said. “I believe they're going to bring good discussions to the council. That’s going to be nice because I believe the more discussion we have at the council level on each individual case item, the better decision we will have at the end. I welcome that discussion.”

  Kuhle also added the discussion “needs to be respectful.”

Final thoughts Kuhle said that despite some issues, Worthington is in a good spot for the future.

  “We need to work toward housing, support the school system and work on amenities in town,” Kuhle said. “If we do a good job on that and are open-minded toward economic development, we’ll be fine.”

  Kuhle also said residents need to embrace diversity.

  “I view Worthington’s diversity as an asset that's going to move our city forward,” he said.

“The students we have coming out of Worthington schools, they're ready for the world. There’s businesses in town that need people who have multi-language skills - and it's not just the service business but the big corporate businesses in town because they sell products worldwide.”

  Kuhle praised Director of Public Safety Troy Appel and the police for making the city safer.

  According to the 2015 crime index, published by the FBI and MN BCA, Worthington had 4,349 crimes per 100,000 residents, significantly lower than cities of similar size such as Albert Lea (5,658), Fairmont (9,144), and Marshall (6,156).

  Kuhle said the low crime rate is part of why so many people of diverse cultures move to Worthington to work at a major employer like JBS. Kuhle is very happy with the many programs the police department has initiated to connect with the city’s diverse population.

  “They’ve spent a lot of time trying to connect law enforcement with those cultures,” Kuhle said. “I think that’s proven a big dividend to Worthington.”

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