The following is a draft of Wayzata Mayor Ken Willcox's State of the City address delivered to the Wayzata Chamber membership at the Wayzata Country club on March 24, 2011. It is not intended to be a transcript of what was delivered, rather the essence of what was said.
|Mayor Ken Willcox delivers the 2011 State of the City
address at the Wayzata Country Club. Photo Dan Gustafson.
STATE OF THE CITY 2011
Thank you Suzanne. And good afternoon. I really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today. I would like to begin by saluting our city staff and city manager Al Orsen, who have shouldered much of the burden these past two turbulent years. I would also like to thank my fellow members of the Wayzata city council and ask them to stand and be recognized: Jack Amdal, Mary Bader, Andrew Mullin and Tom Tanner. They have all worked incredibly hard to guide Wayzata through the recession. I’d also like to recognize former Mayor Andrew Humphrey who helped set the stage for much of what is good that I will discuss today. And former council member Bob Ambrose who is with us. Thank you all.
Today, although we’re not totally out of the economic woods yet, I believe Wayzata will soon enter one of the more energizing periods in our history. If everything comes together, we will have new development, new recreation, and new infrastructure. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My remarks will be in four parts:
- The recent past
- Positive developments
- What our challenges are, and
- The bright future
So to lead off, let me remind you where we were just a year ago when I last updated you:
FIRST, The recession had forced us to slash our city budget by about 15%. We reduced staff in every department from public works to police, and we cut benefits.
SECOND, The consumer slump coupled with high rents forced some long time businesses to close or leave town. Some of that is continuing.
THIRD, The commercial sector, which represents about a third of our tax base, saw their values slipping. Because they pay taxes at a higher rate than residential, the property tax burden began shifting to our homeowners.
FOURTH, The Bay Center project was on hold
FIFTH, The city was sued by the local Unitarian Church.
SIXTH, Hennepin County continued their unwelcome Bushaway Road expansion plans.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST, there was a train wreck. Oh, and then we found zebra mussels.
The other postscript was the news we got last week that last year’s census ranked Wayzata second in the state in population LOSS among cities our size. We don’t know for sure, but we think the 10% drop may be the result of first, an aging population with kids moving out, and second, people claiming residency in other states for tax purposes.
Anyway, how’s that for positive momentum??
But that was a year ago. Then some good things started happening:
Wayzata won the state high school football championship. And more importantly I won my bet with the mayor of Rosemount, Wayzata’s opponent. His penalty was to wear a Wayzata football jersey at his next council meeting and send photographic/televised proof to us. To his credit he did both.
Other positive things happened:
I. First, on the DEVELOPMENT good news fronts we finally broke a logjam of decisions:
We straightened Superior Avenue and put a traffic light at the corner. The goal was to calm traffic and create a more pedestrian-friendly crossing at Lake Street. Almost all of those costs were covered by the Bay Center development. Just so you know, we also planted over 1000 perennials in the medians last fall: daylilies, roses, lilacs and dogwoods. Look for them to begin blooming in the coming months.
As you heard from Gina, we made the decision to stay in the municipal liquor business. The new muni is now nearing completion on the east end of Mill Street. Not only is the muni a favorite gathering spot, it typically funnels about $250,000 per year into our general fund thereby lowering taxes. As an aside, some people have commented on the size of the new building. Actually much of that was driven by our decision to house the mechanicals in the roof and to build a garage so deliveries could be made inside. The intent was to screen the Widsten neighbors from noise and odors. Although several families there sued us anyway, those suits have since been dismissed.
Presbyterian Homes reaffirmed their intention to begin work on the new Bay Center probably this summer. They renamed the project The Promenade of Wayzata. By the way, as disappointed as we have been by the delay in that project, we could not have wanted to work with a more dedicated, principled developer than Presbyterian Homes. I credit John Berg and Ray Mithun for selecting them.
The city and chamber for the first time brought together the Wayzata commercial property owners. The goal was to come up with a plan to reinvigorate our commercial center. One of the products from that brainstorming was a branding exercise currently underway. The intent is to promote Wayzata broadly as a destination for residents, consumers and businesses. The umbrella slogan for that campaign is: EXPERIENCE WAYZATA: THE GATEWAY TO LAKE MINNETONKA.
II. Second, on the FINANCIAL good news front we stabilized our budgets:
a. To make our resources go further,
We entered into a contract with Long Lake to provide their police services. Those revenues allowed us to hire back one laid-off police officer and add another. You will note the addition of the title Long Lake to the graphics on our squad cars.
Also in a series of meetings this winter with the mayors and public works directors of neighboring Orono and Long Lake we identified a number of opportunities for sharing specialized equipment and for contracting jointly to reduce costs and maintain services. We will continue looking for cost saving collaboration opportunities.
b. In financial management
Our blue ribbon finance committee, now a standing committee, of JC Kiser, Jack Morrison, John Berg and Steve Bloomer gave the city a set of recommendations on capital projects, cash flow and funding sources. We will pay close attention to their counsel, particularly regarding debt.
Speaking of debt, Moody’s has given Wayzata bonds its top rating of AAA. That’s very unusual for a city our size. It reflects our history of conservative financial management and our strong tax base.
Similar to the situation in the private sector, our city staff has shared the pain as we asked them to do more with less. This was a necessary restructuring to balance the cost of government with the new reality of reduced revenue. Some services have suffered. However, we have also been able to begin rebuilding our depleted reserve account. It is now back to 32% of operating expenses, up from 25%. The level recommended by our financial consulting firm is 40%.
III. On the recreation good news front
The new Dakota trail is bringing thousands of bikers to town. We need to provide the goods and services that will prompt them to spend their money here. We have installed bike racks around town and erected new signage directing bikers to our commercial center. More to come
We have new light standards and hockey boards at Klapprich Park, thanks to a grant from Hennepin County related to the new Twins stadium.
The Parks and trails task force and other engaged citizens are tackling everything from facilities upkeep, to maple syrup tapping in the Big Woods, to hockey and skating lessons.
Finally our Wayzata volunteer effort under the leadership of Lynn McCarthy has made a huge contribution to our community.
Over 100 volunteers, clad in blue “Wayzata - We Dig It” t-shirts planted our gardens last spring and will again this year on May 14th. Some families and nurseries also actually adopt specific gardens. The adopters are totally responsible for the design, flower purchasing, planting and summer-long care of their plots.
Other volunteers assist the admin staff at public works answering phones and helping with mailings. Others have digitalized a large percentage of the city’s historical records back to the mid-1800s. Still others have expanded the senior programming at the Boardwalk senior living facility with genealogy classes, computer classes, side trips, and a speaker series.
A Star Tribune reporter a couple of weeks ago relayed to me a League of MN Cities comment that Wayzata was “way ahead of the curve among cities in tapping volunteer energy.” This year the very talented Sue Schroder was the first recipient of the Wayzata Volunteer of the Year award.
THOSE ARE SOME OF THE GOOD THINGS THAT HAVE BEEN HAPPENING. BUT I SAID WE ALSO FACE CHALLENGES. WHAT ARE SOME OF THOSE?
BAY CENTER CONSTRUCTION SEQUENCE
We had hoped the Bay Center would develop retail first to give an early shot in the arm to Wayzata’s retailers. However, both the retail and condo markets remain under pressure. So construction of those areas will be delayed until they see more improvement. Building activity will begin with the senior living components. In addition my understanding is that there are still some final lease buyout arrangements that need to be completed.
The Unitarian Church lawsuit against Wayzata is scheduled to go to trial in December this year. You will recall that they have accused the city of discriminating against churches. Of course, they have been welcome residents here for over 50 years. Their church is located across the street from the Wayzata Fire Department. We have tried some workaround solutions, but so far without result. Unfortunately the lawsuit involves legal expenses which land on our city taxpayers. At this point we understand that a similar burden is not shared by the church members. Their attorneys are handling the case on a pro-bono basis. If the church prevails, their legal expenses will also fall on us.
To protect the beauty of Bushaway Road, we continue to battle the county. We want them to reduce the footprint of their redesign of that historic entryway into Wayzata. We are pursuing a number of strategies involving our state legislators, county commissioner, the watershed district and even the railroad in that effort. The county plans have shrunk markedly since they were first proposed, but the impact of even their reduced designs would still be severe.
The Met Council still plans to install the rest of the high pressure sewer line through Wayzata. It will stretch from the Depot down Lake Street, down the length of Bushaway, across Gray’s Bay and on to Shakopee. The Met Council has committed to us that they will do the work only in the winter months at a time of our choosing when business is slower. The work could happen next winter.
TWO COMMERCIAL ZONES
Wayzata’s commercial activity is bi-polar. Business along Wayzata Boulevard east of Superior is doing very well. On the other hand, Lake Street, which is what people usually think of when discussing Wayzata, is struggling. Part of the problem, other than high rents and taxes, is that compared to other cities around the lake, we don’t have as much to offer in the way of attractions around our lake front. We can advertise for people to come to Wayzata, but if they don’t find much except a lake view, will they come back?
YOU’VE NOW HEARD THE GOOD AND THE NOT SO GOOD INCLUDING THESE CHALLENGES. NOW ON TO WHY I THINK THE COMING YEARS MAY BE THE BEST SO FAR FOR OUR CITY:
I can’t think of many other cities which have the opportunities we do:
Wayzata has benefited from several Tax Increment Districts over the years that helped fund some of our infrastructure. Several of those districts will soon expire, and we’ve got to spend the money left in them, or lose it. What it can be spent on is strictly defined by state law. For instance, it cannot be used in our general operations, manpower or buildings. Most also has to be used in close geographic proximity to the corresponding districts. Over the next three years the city will spend about $6 million from these districts on capital projects. They will involve sidewalks, roads, signage and lighting, among other things. This is a one-time opportunity to get ahead of our infrastructure costs, and we need to be sure we have our priorities right. This is in addition to our normal city maintenance, which averages about $1 million per year. It also does not include the substantial infrastructure spending being done in conjunction with the Bay Center. Most of those costs are borne by the developer.
THE PROMENADE OF WAYZATA
When it is finally on stream, the new center will be the most spectacular development on this side of the metro area. Its unique retail components, residential additions, restaurants and events will be a stimulus for the whole city. It should help all businesses in Wayzata, and it will help restore some of the vigor that has moved to other cities around the lake. The addition of senior housing could also help us be freeing up single family homes that can be made available to younger families looking to expand.
SW CORNER OF LAKE AND SUPERIOR
By straightening Superior Avenue we have created an extremely valuable piece of real estate owned by the city on that corner. It’s now being used for parking. Ultimately it will be sold to a developer.
Our plan anticipates that a new building on that corner will drive more parking requirements and the need for a parking deck of some kind on Mill Street west of the new Muni. That added parking capacity will allow us to think more expansively about what we can do with our Lake Street business core and lakefront offering.
Along those lines, some of what needs to be done is to make what is the primary focus of Wayzata, namely our Minnetonka lake front, more of an attraction for people. As I have said before, we seem to be losing the lakefront battle to other towns around the lake which have more activities and access. We need to give people more reason to experience and enjoy our wonderful views and ambiance. Some of the additions under consideration include more docks, a boardwalk, more gathering areas, and unique amenities. We also need to replenish our shops and sidewalk cafes that cater to visitors.
The upgrades to our lakefront will require a private/public partnership. We will need a combination of substantial private investment along with grants and city support. It will take a community-wide commitment.
Again, the purpose of all of this is to ensure a healthy commercial tax base and an exciting environment. Strong commerce makes Wayzata a desirable place to live while it lowers property taxes and enhances the stability of our neighborhoods.
The new bar and grill with its décor, saturated in historical Wayzata, will continue its role as one of Wayzata’s favorite meeting places. Our extraordinary award-winning staff there has been working hard to ensure a smooth and fun transition. The wine selections in the wine and spirits store will be extensive. The product offering will be managed by Gina Holman, our very talented and high energy director of liquor operations. She is also an accredited graduate wine sommelier. Meanwhile those of you accustomed to the narrow confines of our current liquor store will be blown away by the new space. And finally I would just add that the new muni will be the gateway to our newly created Port of Wayzata (you’ll see what I mean when the building is finished).
AND FINALLY, COMMUNITY SPIRIT
The media in recent years has started to recognize what we have long known. Wayzata has a unique small town flavor that has instilled great civic pride and involvement in its citizenry. At the end of the day, it is the quality of life here mixing beauty, convenience and friendly, helpful people that makes this place special. Everything we have been doing is designed to reinforce that sense. It continues.
IN CONCLUSION LET ME JUST SUMMARIZE,
…that we have set the stage for some important developments in Wayzata. The recession has caused us to re-examine everything we do. We have made needed changes. Now it’s time to execute a turnaround. There’s a new normal out there. We need to adapt to it and take advantage of it.
The city will do its part. We are providing infrastructure, parking, and signage. We are maintaining the small town ambiance with walkability, the muni, and gardens. We have energized our citizens to pitch in to help across a spectrum of city functions. People are engaged in Wayzata. And we are helping them address the future.
In my view, our top priority at this stage is a revitalized Lake Street and lake front. For that we need you – the commercial property owners, the retailers, the restaurants and the citizens who patronize them and who care about our city. Now is the time for new ideas, new approaches. Retailers need to re-examine who today’s customer is, what will attract them and keep them coming back. The chamber needs to reassess what events work, what events don’t work, and what its members need to flourish. Bring us your ideas. We will try to help.
Just imagine a lake front with more docks for boat arrivals, more sidewalk cafes, a boardwalk with kiosks for people to stroll, shops all open at the same hours, bikers stopping for refreshments and to browse, people enjoying an expanded park area along the lake, sales associates eager to make customers feel welcome, and new and exciting chamber events.
That’s what will win the lake front battle and restore Wayzata as the premier gateway to Lake Minnetonka.
We live in a beautiful place with talented and dedicated people. We still face speed bumps as we struggle back from the recession, but I am optimistic that we have put most of the difficult adjustments behind us. With the unique assets at our disposal, we should give thanks every day that we live in such a wonderful community. We’re heading in the right direction, and with everyone pulling together, I believe the future is very bright, indeed.