by Sarah Squires
The city is putting the brakes on a proposal to build a $40 million multipurpose arena to house the arts and WSU athletics, but hopes to keep it on the shelf until the economy hits an upswing.
Mayor Jerry Miller met Monday with committee members who’ve been working on the plans, some for almost two years. He said that the project was one that he had “pretty deep feelings toward,” but that conditions weren’t favorable for financing the project. Both the state and private donors, said Miller, aren’t in a good position to be funding nonessentials. At least, not for now.
“We’re not talking about throwing the whole concept out the window,” said council and committee member Tim Breza. “Timing is what we’re talking about.”
And that timing may make or break a $250,000 state grant to study the project. The plans have been halted for the second time as the city nears spending it on architectural predesign work and a feasibility market analysis. But whether the state will let Winona the money while facing historic deficits is anyone’s guess.
Jim Schmidt, Vice President of WSU University Advancement, said that the state Legislature would have to take legislative action to renege on the grant money. He said that that can happen if an entity chooses to wait and not use the money, but sometimes such a grant is given more time to be spent.
Members of the committee also worried that if the project is started up again, it would have to begin from scratch. The committee has already been working for months and was poised to enter into a contract with HOK Venue. Committee member Margaret Shaw Johnson said that they were pleased with the firm and the work that had been done by the committee thus far, and didn’t want to see it have to start all over again.
The initial grant was aimed at building a theater to house the Great River Shakespeare Festival and other arts events. But just as the committee neared hiring an architect for that project, Miller halted their work and said that WSU athletics had been added to the picture.
Schmidt said that while the facility would have been an asset for the university, it’s currently focused on its new Wellness Center and possible new dormitory as well as a shrinking budget. “We were sweating it and frankly, we were pleased to hear this decision,” he said.
Miller said that it’s possible that the city could revive the plans in as little as eight or nine months, but that it could be longer. As far as retaining the $250,000 grant, he said he felt that the state would show the city “good will” after Winona’s decided not to spend during times of economic need. That, he said, could help when and if the city goes to lobby for funding for the actual construction.
The decision to pull back now isn’t just about the economy. Special Projects Director Chad Ubl said that the feasibility and market analysis information needs to be current to be accurate, so moving ahead with any parts of the project might mean a waste of money if funding for construction isn’t there within a reasonable amount of time.
Miller has said in the past that the city would lobby the state for half of the potential $40 million arena, then fundraise and bond for the rest.
Some committee members said that they felt the collaboration between members was beneficial even if the project isn’t going forward right now. The committee includes representatives from the city, GRSF, the Beethoven Festival, the Frozen River Film Festival, WSU and others. Some said they were keen on continuing to meet, even if the project wasn’t moving full speed ahead.
Jeff Stevenson, GRSF general manager, said that the group has created some synergy for the arts community, and it would be nice to see that continue, despite the economic climate. “When it’s dark and the wind is blowing, you put your head down and trudge a little farther,” he said.