by CHRIS ROGERS
After winning crucial approvals for the project on Monday, Bay State Milling will soon demolish two buildings and construct a new warehouse at its flagship mill in downtown Winona.
Company officials described the new warehouse as critical to Bay State Milling’s continued success and even raised the prospect of relocating the mill — and its over 100 jobs — if the warehouse was not approved. Employees urged city officials to support the project and preserve their jobs. The city’s Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) advocated for trying to save parts of a 117-year-old building that is slated for demolition — the former Park Brewing Company/Peerless Chain building at 32 Walnut Street — by naming it a local historic site. In a series of votes, the City Council unanimously supported zoning approvals for the warehouse, while a decision about whether to designate the former brewery as a local historic site divided the council 5-2.
“I love this town. I love Bay State,” Winona resident and Bay State Milling employee Rob Mikols told the City Council, describing how, without a livable wage from the mill, he would not have been able to maintain his over-100-year-old Victorian house. “Bay State has done more for me than any other job in Winona. Please, for a regular working guy, I would ask that you allow this to go through.”
Bay State Milling needs to improve its facility to stay competitive, Bay State Milling Winona Plant Manager Al Simanovski said. However, he added, “We’re also neighbors, and we fully understand and respect the investments made by the city to reinvent parts of the town, like Levee Park.” In an effort to make the new warehouse compliment Levee Park and historic downtown Winona, the company designed the warehouse’s western facade — which borders the park — to resemble a historic storefront. Bay State Milling also offered to allow a riverfront bike path to cross its property, and, just last weekend, pledged to work with the Union Pacific Railroad to remove or clean up unused spur tracks in the rail yard that borders Levee Park. Both are goals Winonans have been seeking for years.
The new warehouse will be a great aesthetic improvement for the city, Winona City Council member Michelle Alexander said. “When I look at what the old pictures versus what it’s going to be, that energizes me for downtown,” she stated.
The city of Winona created the HPC because historic buildings are important to the community, and the HPC’s mission is to advocate for their preservation, HPC members reminded the City Council. Earlier this spring, the HPC proposed naming the Park Brewing Company/Peerless Chain building a local historic site. That historic designation would prevent Bay State Milling from demolishing the building without approval from either the HPC or City Council. Supporters noted that historic designation would not rule out demolition of the old brewery, but it would slow down demolition long enough for city leaders and Bay State Milling to have a conversation about the options and what pieces of the brewery might still be saved. Winonan Sadie Neuman and several other supporters of historic designation believed the old brewery’s facade could still be saved and incorporated into the new warehouse. Others urged Bay State Milling to consider saving simply bricks and pieces of stonework from the former brewery.
“We believe that dialogue is needed,” HPC Chair Kendall Larson said. “That’s what I think our purpose is, and that’s what the local designation process does. It prompts us to pause and think about it.” If the building had been designated, Bay State Milling could have still applied to the HPC to demolish it and appealed any denial to the City Council. That process could take around 50 days in total, city staff reported. “This local historic designation process does cause this process to slow down some,” Larson said, adding, “As an HPC member, I believe this building deserves that.”
Bay State Milling does not have 50 days to spare, Simanovski told the City Council. “The timing of this project is hugely important for Bay State Milling. We’ve got product ready for customers now and we want to get moving,” he stated. “We need to get a result,” he added.
At Monday’s public hearing, several citizens supported the HPC’s proposal, while others urged the council to reject it and allow demolition to move forward. Recalling all of the iconic historic buildings Winona has lost to demolition over the years, one citizen said, “There’s a reason that now there’s all these guidelines and groups such as the HPC: so that people don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.” Waiting another 50 days could prevent Bay State Milling from finishing construction this season, former City Council member Tim Breza said. “Bay State needs your support. They need it now. Please vote for it,” he stated.
“I appreciate Bay State Milling company hugely,” Mayor Mark Peterson said. “I appreciate their history in this community, the jobs they bring, the good-paying jobs … their willingness to work with the city on the bicycle trail and the railroad tracks. I think that’s very important, but separate from this issue.” At issue is the city’s historic preservation ordinance, which calls for historically significant buildings to be named historic sites and not demolished without going through the approval process, Peterson said. Peterson championed creation of the ordinance decades ago. “I think we’d be wrong to set a precedent of not following that ordinance,” he stated, adding, “There’s nothing in the ordinance that says if there’s a property that’s in a hurry we need to consider that.”
Peterson and City Council member Eileen Moeller voted with their colleagues to support two zoning approvals Bay State Milling needed for its warehouse, but they were the only members to vote for historic designation of the former brewery. “I voted to support those [zoning approvals] because I do want to see the project go forward,” Moeller said of the new warehouse in an interview. “My concern is that we’re not demolishing buildings willy nilly,” she said of her vote for historic desingation, explaining that she believed the designation would have made sure Bay State Milling considered all of the options before demolition.
If the former brewery becomes a local historic site, Bay State Milling is going to come back before the City Council in 50 days asking for essentially the same thing — approval to demolish the building, Alexander stated. “There’s no reason that I can see to delay this vote,” she said.
Asked if the brewery would ultimately have been demolished even if it had been designated, Moeller said, “I think we would have come around to the same thing … but I think these processes are put in place for a reason.” She added that numerous citizens urged her to support historic preservation.
“I think it’s very important that we carefully look at what we call historic,” Alexander said. “There’s a difference between a building that is old and could be historic and a building that is actually historic and valuable in the community.” She added, “For me, a building has to have a purpose, and the buildings we’re talking about don’t have a purpose without Bay State Milling.”
“Architectural significance is sometimes in the eye of the beholder, and I look at this building and say, it’s not that interesting to me,” City Council member Al Thurley said of the old brewery. The new warehouse will allow Bay State Milling to stop trucking finished flour across town to a warehouse on West Third Street where truck loading has caused traffic congestion. Citing those problems, Thurley added, “The sooner we can get [the new warehouse] going, the sooner we can get those trucks off the road.”
“The building that is there right now cannot be modernized to fit modern warehousing,” City Council member George Borzyskowski said. He described demolishing it to make way for a better warehouse as a no-brainer. “It’s an expansion of your business, it [improves] efficiency of your business, and that’s the best place to do it,” he stated.
“[Historic designation] needs to be a tool used in advance, not a tool used at the last minute,” City Council member Pam Eyden said. The HPC has been eyeing historic designation of the Park Brewing building for a few years now, but it did not take action until this spring, when HPC members believed Bay State Milling had imminent plans to demolish the building.
City Council member Paul Schollmeier joined Moeller in standing up for the HPC, though Schollmeier ultimately voted against historic designation. Earlier in the meeting, Winona businessman Jerry Papenfuss had said the HPC doesn’t care about public safety or economic development. “The commission does not care in any way about good-paying jobs and increasing the tax base,” Papenfuss stated. “I have not enjoyed how much the HPC has been vilified for trying to do their job,” Moeller responded. The volunteer members of both the HPC, which recommended historic designation, and the Planning Commission, which advised against it, had valuable roles to play, even though they looked at the issue from different angles, Schollmeier said. “Obviously, Bay State Milling has brought forth a pretty significant project that could really benefit the downtown and the community,” he stated. “The HPC is doing their work, and I really appreciate the job they’ve done,” he continued, adding, “It is not an easy decision to make.”
The City Council would have needed a five-member supermajority to approve historic designation of the brewery.
“I am very pleased,” Simanovski said in an interview after the decision. “I think Bay State Milling, the city of Winona, and the residents of Winona are going to have something fantastic when this project is done, and I’m glad we could come together and make something great for the whole community.” Simanovski reported the company hopes to start demolition within 30 days. Asked whether construction would be completed this year, he said, “I would love, love, love to have it up this year. We have to see how things go with our contractors. We are in June already.”