by CHRIS ROGERS
On Monday, Bay State Milling cleared the first hurdle in its effort to build a new warehouse on the edge of Levee Park in Winona. After debates about how the project would affect downtown, the city of Winona Planning Commission voted 6-2 to recommend changing the city’s comprehensive plan and rezoning property to allow the new warehouse.
It was a sea of red at Monday’s meeting. Scores of people in red Bay State Milling T-shirts urged the Planning Commission to approve the company’s proposals, and over 350 people signed a petition in support of the warehouse project. “There’s no reason not to support this change,” local Bay State Milling employee Thysen Hetzel told city officials.
Bay State Milling currently stores its finished product at an offsite warehouse on West Third Street, and company officials say they need an onsite warehouse to streamline the operation and keep the Winona mill competitive. The plant has been operating for over 120 years and employs over 100 people.
To make room for the new warehouse, Bay State Milling wants to demolish the former Park Brewing Company building and the former Godfather’s Pizza restaurant. Some Winonans balked at the idea of destroying the former brewery and lamented the loss of one of the city’s only restaurants with a view of the river. The Winona Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) has proposed making the brewery a local historic site, which would block Bay State Milling from demolishing it without city approval.
In an effort to make the new warehouse fit in with the park and historic downtown, Bay State Milling leaders proposed a brick facade that would mimic downtown storefronts and feature interpretative displays. On Monday, company officials also offered to allow a riverfront bike path to cross their property — Winona has been working on the riverfront bike path for years.
Company leaders have described the warehouse project as “critical” to enabling Bay State Milling to keep up with its competitors. Local business leaders warned that the Winona mill could be endangered if the warehouse project does not succeed. Look at Archer Daniels Midland’s flour mills, Winonan Jon Krofchalk said. That company is closing mills across the country, including in Minneapolis, Minn., and consolidating its production at new state-of-the-art mills, he noted. “I hope that doesn’t happen here,” Krofchalk stated. “If you want this business to move, vote against it.”
“If you don’t do this, what will Bay State do?” Winona Area Chamber of Commerce leader and Merchants Bank Vice President Jim Vrchota asked. “And God forbid if they say, ‘You know what? We just cannot expand here. We just cannot continue to grow our business here.’ Then, you are left with the option of that company vacating the area and taking those jobs with them. I would not want to be the Planning Commission that put the tombstone on a business that has been around for 120 years, has been paying taxes in our community for 120 years, that has been employing people for 120 years.”
Some Winonans said the city should not base its decision on the threat that Bay State Milling would close its largest mill. “I don’t like feeling like there’s a company that loves Winona and wants to be part of Winona, and then says, ‘If we don’t get what we want we may have to leave,’” HPC member Connie Dretske said. “I don’t want anyone to be forced to make a decision without really evaluating [everything],” she added.
Bay State Milling could site its new warehouse elsewhere, others argued. “There’s other options for them,” Winonan Michael Onstad said. Pointing to properties east of the mill that could be used for a warehouse, Winonan Mike Kennedy stated, “There are alternatives that Bay State should explain at least.”
Bay State Milling officials have said that because the mill’s production lines flow east to west, the best place to store finished product is on the west side of the plant and building a new warehouse to the east would require replacing equipment to reverse production lines’ directions at a cost of millions of dollars.
Other citizens and city officials questioned Bay State Milling’s statements that the new warehouse would cut down on truck trips downtown. Currently, Bay State Milling makes 80-100 truck trips per day shuttling flour to a West Third Street warehouse, according to the company. By building an onsite warehouse, Bay State Milling would eliminate those truck trips. Bay State Milling Winona Plant Manager Al Simanovski touted that point as a benefit of the new warehouse. Some opponents of the rezone noted that trucks would come downtown to pick up finished flour for the first time. Planning Commission Chair Ed Hahn reasoned that if the mill’s success grows, so will new traffic — not that that is a bad thing. Simanovski said the mill’s business plan calls for adding specialty products but not increasing overall volume, so traffic would not significantly increase.
Planning Commission and HPC member Peter Shortridge pushed for Bay State Milling to make another concession: support the removal of the rail storage yard next to Levee Park. While the main running line cannot be removed, Bay State Milling no longer needs all those spur lines for train car storage and removing them would help beautify the park, Shortridge argued. Simanovski said Bay State Milling does not own or control the spur lines; Union Pacific Railroad (UP) does. Yes, but whenever asked to remove the storage tracks, UP always points to the possibility that Bay State Milling might need them, Shortridge responded. If Bay State Milling agrees, UP would go along with it, he asserted. Pointing to calls in the city’s comprehensive plan to try to remove the rail yard, Shortridge argued, “This is your last chance probably to ever get them to agree to simply have a feeder track.”
Shortridge is a part-owner of numerous historic buildings neighboring Bay State Milling and has previously argued the city should encourage the area of downtown to transition from industrial uses to commercial ones.
“It’s not right to hold Bay State hostage over the rail yard. They don’t own it,” Planning Commission member Brad Ballard countered. The crowd applauded him.
Shortridge and fellow Planning Commission members Brian Buelow and Dale Boettcher unsuccessfully tried to delay a vote on Bay State Milling’s proposal for a month while asking city staff to negotiate with the company about the storage tracks. Their motion failed 3-5, with Ballard, Hahn, and commission members Craig Porter, LaVerne Olson, and Amy Jo Marks voting against it.
After that, Boettcher joined Ballard, Hahn, Marks, Olson, and Porter in voting to recommend approval of Bay State Milling’s requests. Buelow and Shortridge dissented. Shortridge noted that by changing the zoning of the Godfather’s property from “mixed-use downtown” to “heavy industrial” the city’s aesthetic design rules would no longer apply, meaning that the city would no longer be able to require the new warehouse facade to look a certain way. “The building we end up with might not look anything like that,” Shortridge said, gesturing to Bay State Milling’s conceptual design. “Once we [rezone the property,] our hands are fairly off,” he added.
Now the proposed comprehensive plan change and rezoning will be forwarded to the City Council for a final decision.
Planning Commission opposes historic designation
The Planning Commission also opposed on Monday the HPC’s proposal to make the former brewery a local historic site. Making the former brewery a local historic site would block Bay State Milling from demolishing it without city approval. At Monday’s meeting, HPC members praised the brewery building and urged Bay State Milling to look for creative ways to save it. Shortridge even suggested demolishing the building except for its facade and working its facade into the front of new a warehouse. The building’s Prohibition backstory and the fact that it was the longtime home of Peerless Chain make it hugely historically significant, Shortridge argued. Architecturally, he added, “It’s one of the few remaining pieces of Italianate architecture … It’s actually in really good shape.”
“I don’t want to see this building, the Peerless Chain-Park Brewery building, be added to that list of buildings that could have been saved,” HPC member Preston Lawling said. “I’d like to think there’s something that could be thought of creatively to make that [building] work,” he added.
“Nothing about the building is distinctive,” Olson stated. “It’s just a plain old brick building that was built in 1903 … It’s outlived its usefulness. It’s not designed or built to fit in or be used in today’s industrial manufacturing processes.”
The old brewery does have historic value, but it should have been made a historic site when Peerless moved, not just now that Bay State Milling wants to expand, Hahn argued. “If it was such a priority, why was nothing done for almost 40 years?” Hahn asked. “We as a community were complacent to sit back, and it wasn’t important, it wasn’t important, and it wasn’t important, until suddenly it was important. I agree it is a historic building, but we did not take the proactive steps we needed to as Winona to ensure that it would be preserved, and that hurts. That’s a painful lesson, but I think that’s a lesson we have to learn,” Hahn stated.
In a 6-2 vote, the Planning Commission voted against making the former brewery a local historic site. Shortridge and Buelow dissented.
The Planning Commission’s vote is just a recommendation. The HPC will hold a public hearing at 4 p.m. today in the City Council chambers at city hall on the issue. Then the HPC will vote on whether to recommend historic designation of the brewery to the City Council. If the HPC votes to recommend the historic designation, the City Council will hold a second public hearing before making a final decision.