Last week’s news that Worthington’s Shopko has been designated for closure in May only reinforces what many people already feel is obvious: further economic development in this community is sorely needed.
For years, Worthington residents have harbored dreams of their favorite retailer or restaurant setting up shop here. This is, of course, much easier said than done, but at a time in which Worthington seems to be losing business amenities (bowling alley, movie theater, department stores) faster than it’s gaining them, those who work to attract investment in this city should be working harder than ever.
That hard work, it should be stressed, should involve making it abundantly clear that Worthington is open for business, and sending positive messages to developers that we’re willing to work with them to improve what our already fine community has to offer. That’s why action taken at the Jan. 28 Worthington City Council meeting, in our opinion, is both disappointing and disheartening.
At that meeting, council members voted 3-2 to change the zoning of a parcel of land across from Olson Park - action required in order to advance a plan by developer Midwest Sustainable Construction of Luverne. While the majority of the council voted for the rezone, a supermajority of four votes was needed by law, and the vote therefore failed.
Let’s first address what the proposed development included. Mike Bourquin of Brewster, speaking on behalf of the developer during the Jan. 14 city council meeting, explained that the plan included a daycare with a capacity of 149 kids. Anyone with young children who resides or works in Worthington can’t help but be familiar with how difficult it is to secure child care, and we can’t blame some parents for thinking that a new daycare facility here was practically too good to be true. It may end up just that way, unfortunately.
There’s more to the development plan, too. An assisted living facility with 22 units - a forward-looking idea, considering the aging Baby Boomer population - was detailed by Bourquin, as well as a courtyard for play and leisure. The project also included two buildings that would house 27 apartment units with one or two bedrooms (with market rate rent ranging from $895 to $995 per month), as well as a small coffee/ice cream shop.
A recommendation for a rezoning of the property was made on a 3-2 vote by the Worthington Planning Commission during its Jan. 2 meeting. That brought the matter to council, which is required to approve by supermajority three readings of any zoning ordinance change to take ultimate action. The first reading transpired Jan. 14, and was approved 4-1 with council members Chad Cummings, Amy Ernst, Mike Harmon and Larry Janssen in favor and councilman Alan Oberloh opposed.
So what changed between the Jan. 14 4-1 vote and the Jan. 28 3-2 vote? At the very least, the mind of one councilman.
During the Jan. 28 city council meeting, council members heard concerns from residents in the nearby Glenwood Heights neighborhood about the potential for negative traffic and parking impacts, as well as the worry that if the proposed market-rate housing component of the development didn’t work out, low-income housing would wind up on that lot instead. Worthington City Administrator Steve Robinson noted that under terms of a grant required to complete the project, the complex would have to be market-rate housing for the next 10 years. And, during the Jan. 14 council meeting, Worthington City Engineer Dwayne Haffield expressed confidence that extreme road improvements wouldn’t be necessary to accommodate the new level of traffic brought by the development.
In the end, it was the market-rate housing component of the project that Cummings cited when he announced a change in his vote from “yes” to “no” for the second reading. Oberloh, too, objected to that component, noting that he’d heard some homeowners in the neighborhood would sell their houses in the event the development was permitted. Oberloh said in a Jan. 29 interview with The Globe that he was opposed to “less than higher-end housing” being built next to homes valued in the $400,000 range.
This, to us, seems more like a classic case of “Not in My Back Yard” obstructionism, not to mention a desire by some to avoid, so to speak, rocking a boat that’s docked in what many perceive as this community’s most elite neighborhood.
A simple drive around Worthington should reveal to most that the area around the proposed site is probably the city’s best location for many types of new development. It’s not difficult to imagine this part of Worthington growing significantly in the next several years, with additional new homes, businesses and other amenities continually being developed As Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle asked rhetorically at the last council meeting, “If not here, where?” He added later, before the failed vote: “In the meantime, we (would be) turning an investment away.”
No, mayor, we should not be turning investment away. Projects such as this development our city council failed to advance - a project we hope is not dead - would have only enhanced opportunities for further, much-needed investment in Worthington. Without these investments, economic development challenges will only continue.