WILLMAR -- Eleven downtown commercial businesses participated in a two-year Willmar Housing and Redevelopment Authority grant program to improve their store fronts and make other improvements to their buildings. The program ends Dec. 31, 2011. Homeowners in Willmar and Pennock also participated.

"I hope that the community is noticing some changes in the esthetics of the downtown and how it looks,'' says Jill Bengtson, executive director of the Willmar HRA and the Kandiyohi County HRA.

"We've also been able to do in 2 of those 11 businesses some rental rehab in their upstairs apartments above their store fronts,'' said Bengtson. "That's been a good thing.''

The businesses received funding under a Small Cities grant received in 2010 from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

The grant was also used to provide funding to rehabilitate 16 homeowner properties in Willmar and 7 homeowner properties in Pennock.

The $814,790 Small Cities grant was joined with other public funds and private dollars for a combined project totaling $1,059,699.

One downtown business owner that participated in the program was Roy Stiff, president of KandiComp, a digital services company. Stiff received a grant for a new awning. He encourages his business neighbors to look into HRA funding.

"It was terrific,'' he said. "We can't afford to do more than we're doing, and the HRA made it possible for us to do what we're doing. We have an attractive store front that anybody would feel very comfortable visiting and first impressions are everything.''

Bengtson said DEED has been very good to Willmar. She says the funding was a very large, substantial grant from the Small Cities program to any community.

"We feel very blessed to have gotten that and we hope we have done justice to the program for DEED and that they will invite us back again,'' said Bengtson.