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City council discusses tornado recovery options

Incentives for people to build in Wadena and other tornado recovery issues were discussed by the city council during its regular meeting June 12.

Though the ideas are in the discussion stages and no action was taken on them, Mayor Wayne Wolden proposed offering free lots and other possible incentives for people to build, move into Wadena and rebuild its tax base and economy.

The city of Wadena lost population in the June 17, 2010 tornado aftermath. Wolden said he talked about the decline and lack of building permits to Dean Uselman, Wadena Development Authority director and Planning and Zoning director.

Some lots in southwest and northwest Wadena are empty.

"Lots are being sold for a buck, 800 bucks," Wolden said. "I believe that it's time for the city to take some moves to incent people to buy these lots, to build on these lots, to move in on these lots, and pay taxes... put their kids in our schools, buy our groceries," he said.

He said the intent of the program is for property owners to donate their lots to the city, and they would receive a receipt for tax purposes for the lot value. The cost to the city would be maintenance of the lot, including mowing.

The city Could waive fees including electric and water hookup and building permit fees.

Wolden said the city could put up billboards advertising free lots in Wadena to get people to move in.

Other financial incentives could be used to get people to relocate to Wadena.

Wolden said Uselman has identified 57 empty building lots, and that 26 to 28 are directly tornado-related.

"We need to increase our population. We need to get people on these lots," Wolden said.

Uselman said property owners having trouble selling lots was a problem; he talked to one person asking $5,000 for a lot that should be worth $20,000.

Council member Jeanette Baymler said if they go through with this sort of plan, they will get complaints from realtors about the city government competing with them.

Council members Kay Browne and Toby Pierce also expressed caution about the idea.

"One principle is that when people get something for nothing, they don't value it," Browne said.

Pierce also said the city should hesitate to give things away for free.

Wolden said that free lots might be what it takes to build up Wadena.

City Administrator Brad Swenson said the city was going to have big budget issues down the road with a dwindling tax base.

During that same agenda item, the council authorized about $5,000 - half of about $10,000 in uncommitted funds from the Initiative Foundation - to be given to the Wadena-Otter Tail Long Term Recovery Committee to purchase materials for volunteers to fix tornado survivors' property.

Another issue brought up in the same agenda item was that the city was having a hard time distributing the Small Cities Grant for fixing housing and property because not all applicants met the income guidelines.