Committee forms to encourage yes vote on riverfront referendum
A standing room crowd of over 75 people gathered in the Merrill Common Council Chambers Thursday to get detailed information on the proposed riverfront development project that was approved this past summer by the council that is now the subject of an advisory referendum during the Nov. 2 election.
Supporters of the plan, which the council approved and added to the city’s comprehensive plan, say the redevelopment in the area would spur the creation of jobs and attract new businesses and families to the Merrill area.
“I am glad to see so many concerned citizens at this meeting,” said Gene Bebel, one of the organizers of the meeting. “Since you are here, I hope those two words applies to you.”
Former Mayor Doug Williams was asked to attend the meeting and give a brief overview of the project, as well as clear up some misconceptions about it. The number one misconception was that the city would have to pay in the neighborhood of $20 million to complete the plan.
“It was never our intention as a city to drop $20 million into this project,” Williams said. “We wanted the city to be a facilitator to help private developers.”
Since the city could apply for many of the grants that would be needed to complete the project, as a facilitator it may have to take ownership of some of the property for a short period of time. But the overwhelming majority of the costs incurred in the process would ultimately be borne by the developers.
Williams said that it took roughly two years from when talks first started on what could be done to encourage developers to look at the riverfront area and getting the plan to where it is now. Williams and City Administrator Tony Chladek had casual conversations with many of the landowners in the area and many seemed to support the concept. Williams said those landowners who currently do not support the plan could change their mind later on.
The city then hired a firm to draw up the plan, which went through many changes through public input meetings.
Williams added that since the plan became part of the comprehensive plan, any development in the riverfront area would have to meet the requirements in the plan. It was also viewed as a long-range plan, meaning it might take 20 or more years for all parts of the plan to be completed.
In addition to grants, other sources of funding could be used to move the project along.
“You can apply for multiple grants, you can use TIF dollars and you can use private dollars,” Williams said. “Any expenditure would have to be approved by the council.”
Since the plan was incorporated into the comprehensive plan, this would help make any grant applications be looked at more favorably, he said.
On the subject of possible soil contamination, Williams said that while there are some known sites in the project boundaries, the scope of any problems wouldn’t be known until they are studied. He added that contamination wouldn’t necessarily prohibit the use of those areas in the project.
“In the City of Merrill, we probably have half a dozen contaminated sites that you don’t know about,” Williams said. “We are working to clean some of these up and get them back into use.”
Chladek said since the referendum is non-binding, the council would not have to abide by the results, although it was unlikely it would.
“If the people vote no on this, I don’t see the council having the political will to go against the wishes of the people,” he said.
Even the wording of the referendum was discussed. While it asks if the project should be continued outside of the downtown area, the lack of a clearly defined boundary for downtown leaves the issue subject to interpretation. Both Williams and Chladek said it could reasonably be assumed that the intent is to stop the project as a whole.
Bebel said the organizers are hoping to send a clear message to the council by having the voters vote yes to the question in overwhelming numbers. They spent the later part of the meeting organizing a committee that would spearhead a publicity campaign to get the message out to voters, including fighting the misconceptions that are circulating about the project.
Anyone who would like to join the effort to approve the referendum are asked to contact Bebel at or Sharon Anderson at 715-536-9166 or email [email protected].