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Willard planners bullish on future

An update to city’s comprehensive plan seeks to spur economic growth

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Economic development is beginning to creep its way to a 10-square-mile area to the north of Springfield.

The city of Willard is in the midst of updating its comprehensive plan, while development occurs in the southeast part of town.

“It’s an area that’s kind of flown under the radar,” said Matt Kelley, branch president of Freedom Bank of Southern Missouri in Willard. “I see it as one of the most untapped markets, communities, areas in all of southwest Missouri – if not all of Missouri.”

The community has a growing sense of pride, visualized by the school’s “Flying W” logo city officials want to incorporate on the water tower and city letterhead, for instance.

Willard, a town of 5,426 people, is a mix of rustic, modern and starter homes sprawled across an agriculture backdrop with mostly small businesses scattered throughout.

The conversation to look to the future began in 2017 with the development of a long-term financial plan and the first steps for the comprehensive plan.

More recently, the city received survey results from 742 residents, or 14% of the population, about how they would like to see their town develop. In the comprehensive plan survey, the top priority identified in economic development is for small, local businesses, selected by nearly 500 respondents. A desire for service-based commercial, such as restaurants and hotel, came in second.

“I think one thing the plan does is it helps us pull together something that’s modern and can be digested by a broader community base,” said Brad Gray, Willard’s city administrator.

The plan still needs to be adopted by city Planning and Zoning.

Building community
The vision for the future already is unfolding.

Kelley is working on a 24-acre development, titled Gauge Crossing, in southeast Willard off Proctor Road near Mid-Missouri Bank and New Life Baptist Church. He’s partnering with Donald Hancock of the Hancock Co. LLC and Justin Hayden of Hayden Machinery LLC through ATM Square LLC.

The Gauge Crossing plan has 16 acres of commercial in the middle of single-family housing on one side and mixed-use on the other.

“We’re doing something different for this area – a pocket neighborhood,” Kelley said of plans for over 20 homes between 1,000 and 1,200 square feet apiece. “They’re going to be smaller but very high-end type of homes.”

With price points under $189,000, Kelley said the target market of the homes is young professionals and baby boomers. Design features call for use of reclaimed barnwood and brick or stone exteriors, he said.

The developers intend to start dirt work this summer, with homes for sale by next spring. The mixed-use portion will comprise 12,000 square feet, half of which is dedicated for retail tenants.

“We’re going to build a retail facility and do some loft apartments,” Kelley said. “We’ll either have six 1,000-square-foot units or five 1,200-square-foot units.”

The partners are in the final steps of obtaining construction documents, then they’ll accept private bids for 30-45 days for general contracting work. Bids on the public improvements will follow, Kelley said. An expansion of Proctor Road would connect all three portions of the development.

“Once our public improvements are in, we’ll be moving to the residential portion first,” Kelley said.

Kelley didn’t have an estimate for total construction costs, but said the public improvements would range between $600,000 and $750,000.

The ATM Square projects are the sort of growth Gray is aiming to ignite in Willard.

“I think it’s a manifestation of what can happen with partnerships,” he said.

Road to Willard
The backbone of Willard’s push for growth stems from two road projects: improvements to Miller Road and the widening of U.S. Highway 160 to four lanes.

The Highway 160 widening, an $18.6 million project, is slated to begin this summer and wrap up in late 2020.

The $900,000-$1 million Miller Road project will resurface 4,000 linear feet of roadway, and add a center turn lane, wider through lanes and a five-foot wide adjacent sidewalk. Great River Engineering is managing the Miller Road project with bidding open until May 9.

The planned improvements come at a time when 36% of residents claim to either be dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with street conditions, according to the comprehensive plan survey.

Willard’s population has grown 2.6% since 2010, and with that comes a growing service area.

Fire Chief Kenny Scott said the lone station receives about 1,600 calls a year, up from 1,300 when he started with the Willard Fire Protection District four years ago.

His service area is 74 square miles, and Scott said the average service time is increasing as residential areas grow. Gray said officials will break ground on a new station in 2020 by Fantastic Caverns.

His wish list includes a large health care clinic with a senior living center.

“The majority of health care is on the south side of Springfield and southeast Greene County and Ozark,” he said. “I feel like there’s a very strong opportunity and niche for health care in northwest Greene County.”

There is currently no health care clinic within city limits. For Kelley, a 12-year resident of Willard, drawing in big-box stores and improving marketing are areas where the Willard community can improve.

“We want to be that next big community that booms,” he said. “It seems like there’s always that first anchor that comes in that then brings everything with it. We just haven’t had that first person to step out and really do that for us.”

The way Gray views his hometown is through his 1-year-old son’s eyes.

“I think about what he could see Willard as when he’s graduating high school,” he said. “I think the building blocks for Willard are in place.”

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