by CHRIS ROGERS
A month after Winona city staff first proposed a $5.4-million plan to expand the East Recreation Center (ERC) and move the city’s senior center there, it is still unclear where the City Council stands.
Members of the senior center, the Winona Friendship Center, have been asking the City Council for a larger location for years. Over the last year and a half, the council funded two studies of potential locations for the Friendship Center. The most recent study analyzed three options — keeping the center in its current home at the Masonic Temple, relocating it to an expanded ERC, or splitting Friendship Center programming between the Masonic and ERC — and led to city staff’s $5.4-million proposal for the second option.
There was such limited time at two previous meetings on the proposal that the council was unable to ask many questions or engage in meaningful discussion of the idea. On Monday, the City Council finally got a chance to discuss the proposal in-depth with no time constraints. Then, the council spent less than five minutes talking about the issue on Monday before voting to discuss funding options for the proposal at a future meeting.
Depending on whom one asks, that vote was either a step toward approving the relocation plan or simply a decision to continue the conversation with more information at a later date.
Asked during the meeting whether the vote meant the city was moving forward on the ERC expansion and Friendship Center relocation plan, Mayor Mark Peterson answered, “Well, it would certainly be taking us in that direction.”
“I saw it as allowing this to be a bigger discussion from a budget standpoint,” City Council member Michelle Alexander said in an interview. “For me, ultimately it comes down to what can the city afford? And is this what we want to focus our money on? And at what level?” she added. Alexander has questioned whether the city can afford the $5.4-million project in addition to the other priorities on its multi-million-dollar wish list. She said she voted to have a discussion about whether to fund the senior center relocation with complete information about what it would cost taxpayers and what other spending projects the city might have to delay as a result. “Realistically, we have a limited amount of money and a large group of different people asking for all different things,” she stated. “Is this really — for the next whatever number of years — where we want to focus our tax dollars on? And if it is, I’m all for it,” Alexander added.
“I am, personally, ready to move,” City Council member Pam Eyden said in an interview, explaining that she is prepared to approve the $5.4-million expansion and relocation plan.
Earlier this spring and this summer, Peterson had argued that keeping the Friendship Center at the Masonic in walkable downtown Winona would be good for both the Friendship Center and downtown revitalization in general. Since then, he has been convinced that relocating the senior center to the ERC is the best option for Friendship Center members, and touring an arts center in Rochester, Minn., helped assuage his concerns about how the Masonic Temple would be used if the senior center moves, Peterson said on Monday.
So is Peterson onboard with the proposed relocation and expansion project? “Step-by-step here,” Peterson responded. “We’ve got to look at costs.” He added, “What we did tonight is not a final, final decision. We took a step in that direction, an important step … but we still have more information we have to gather before we make that final decision.”
The council’s vote asked city staff to gather information on funding options for the $5.4-million plan. City staff already proposed bonding — essentially a loan repaid by future property taxes — in the city’s recent capital improvement program. There are few other options. City Council member Al Thurley raised the idea of adopting a local half-cent sales tax to fund the senior center project. In the past, some city leaders criticized the Winona County Board’s decision to enact a countywide half-cent sales tax. City officials felt like it effectively precluded the city from adopting its own sales tax because, they believed, adding a city sales tax on top of the county’s would be too much for retailers in a border city next to low-tax Wisconsin.
The City Council’s vote to continue the conversation during its budgeting process does not delay the decision very long. The council starts its 2020 budget discussions in a few weeks and must set a preliminary budget by the end of September.
At a July 15 meeting, Winona Park and Recreation Director Chad Ubl encouraged the City Council to make a decision. “They’re busting at the seams,” he said of the Friendship Center. “This is not something where I consider that the Friendship Center can sustain a delay for years.” Ubl noted that even if the council approved funding this summer, it might take up to two years to finish construction and relocate the center. “If that continues to get delayed, those problems aren’t going away.”
Asked if the ERC’s current users — largely youth — and the senior center members could co-exist in an expanded facility, Eyden said, “I think dodgeball and pickle ball — they can get along.” She added, “I don’t like having people be silo-ed by age … I can see new activities that would draw both seniors and kids.”
“I sure hope so,” Peterson responded to the same question. What the city creates would have to be, not a senior center or a recreation center, but a community center, he added.
City Council member Eileen Moeller told city staff, “I know we spent quite a lot of time speaking with concerned folks at the Friendship Center, but if we could also make sure that we’re talking with families that currently use the ERC to make sure their needs would be met with this change, as well. I just don’t want to displace anyone.”
The Winona Post wants to hear from people who use the Friendship Center and East Recreation Center. Share your thoughts on the proposal by contacting Chris Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 507-452-1262.