by CHRIS ROGERS
After multiple delays, the future of the Friendship Center — and the East Recreation Center (ERC) and the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre — is back on the Winona City Council’s agenda this week.
The council will hold a special meeting on Wednesday evening to discuss the issue, including city staff’s $5.4-million plan to expand the ERC, relocate the Friendship Center there, and combine the ERC’s majority-youth activities with the Friendship Center’s seniors-only programming into an all-ages community center. As for the Masonic Temple, the plan envisions using it as a multipurpose arts and events center. Upgrades to that building are estimated to cost an additional $1.5 million or more.
With increasingly popular programming crammed into a small space on the first floor of the Masonic Temple, Friendship Center members have been advocating for a new home for the city senior center for years. When it hired consultants to study creating a new senior center in early 2018, the City Council appeared seriously committed to the idea. However, city leaders have gone back and forth on where such a facility could or should be located, and some expressed reluctance to spend so much on a senior center when the city faces other major needs, like renovating or replacing the Central Fire Station.
This big decision facing the City Council has been the subject of several meetings this year, but council members have spent relatively little time discussing it as a group. At times, city staff’s meeting schedules left only a few minutes for council deliberation. At other meetings, council members chose to postpone discussion. After the topic was put on a regular council meeting agenda with no time limit this summer, council members elected to postpone the conversation to budget meetings in August. At those budget meetings, the council engaged in some discussion before deciding to hold a special meeting dedicated solely to the future of the Friendship Center, ERC, and Masonic Temple. On Wednesday, that meeting will finally occur.
“It’s complicated and expensive. There’s many different variables and options. This is probably one of the more difficult issues we’ve dealt with in a long time, and we want to get it right,” Mayor Mark Peterson said.
The City Council could expand the ERC and relocate the Friendship Center, it could keep the Friendship Center at the Masonic and remodel the Masonic, or it could choose to do nothing, Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi said. Additionally, if the Friendship Center is relocated, the council needs to make decisions about the future use of the Masonic Temple, he stated.
Early this year, Peterson favored keeping the Friendship Center at the Masonic Temple, in part to keep more activity in downtown Winona. However, after listening to Friendship Center members’ concerns about the lack of accessible parking for seniors with limited mobility and their aspirations for the ERC site, he has since come around to the idea of relocating the Friendship Center. “As much as I like the idea of keeping the center and keeping anything like the center in the downtown area, I think there’s always going to be a concern with parking for the seniors, and I think that it’s legitimate,” he said.
Is the mayor willing to spend $5.4 million on relocating the Friendship Center? “I don’t have enough information right now to say yes … I need more information on what the impact is going to be on property owners, and how long are we going to take to pay [the debt] back, and how much we’re going to pay in interest,” Peterson responded. “I think this is a problem we need to resolve,” he said of the Friendship Center’s need for more space. “This is a problem that’s been going on for decades really, and I think this is the time the city needs to resolve it.”
Sarvi stated that city staff would provide new information to the council on financing options, for which council members have asked. “The obvious option is to bond for the projects,” Sarvi said. Bonding is the governmental equivalent of taking out a loan; bonds are repaid with future property taxes. Alternatively, he continued, “They could decide to do it over a longer period of time and just use [annual] tax dollars for it — not sure how that would work. We could go to the state and ask for money, although we’d still need to come up with a match.” Sarvi said the city might borrow money to fund both an ERC expansion and improvements to the Masonic Temple.
“The most logical and likely scenario is going to involve some sort of a bond issue and maybe equipment certificates to go along with that,” Sarvi stated, referring to another type of loan.
Paying back loans for this and other projects could raise city property taxes in the future. It comes at the same time Winona County leaders may be forced to borrow $22 million to replace the county’s condemned jail. That project is estimated to cost the owner of a $250,000 home $137 in additional taxes every year for 20 years.
“I think we need to consider that,” Peterson responded when asked whether he was concerned about the cumulative impact of city spending and the county jail on taxpayers. “The city has other projects, as well: streets, the fire station … We have to balance all of that. It has to be reasonable.” However, he pointed out, “Property values are rising at the same time, and I think we have a few projects that are adding significantly to the tax base.” The current construction boom in Winona gives local governments some wiggle room to increase taxes while spreading the costs out over a larger group of taxpayers.
“I am concerned that we’ll bring it up, talk about it, and decide we don’t want to spend the money again,” Friendship Center Activity Council member Alan Leonhardt said of the City Council. Pointing to the city’s growing tax base and past debts the city just finished paying off, he argued, “We’ve never been in a more stable situation … I think the city is in a very good position to fund such a project if they choose to do so.” He added, “If not now, when?”
Peterson said he is hopeful the City Council members can reach some common ground on how to move forward at Wednesday’s meeting. “I think it’s gone on long enough,” he stated. “I think it’s time to try to see if we can find consensus.”
The City Council will meet this Wednesday, November 13, at 5:30 p.m. in the council chambers on the third floor of city hall. This meeting is open to the public.