by CHRIS ROGERS
From fishing to frolfing, pondering Purple Hearts to pitching purple hammocks, the variety of things Winonans use city parks for is as broad as the Big Muddy. The park system is surprisingly wide ranging, too, with 27 parks, an ice arena, a boat marina, and a historic theater. Right now, city officials are trying to draw up a plan for the future of all of it, plus the city’s 130 adult and youth programs.
Dubbed the comprehensive parks plan, the Winona City Council hired consultants from the regional firm ISG and appointed a task force of citizens to help write it. The push to write such a plan started partly with City Council member Michelle Alexander’s frustrations; she wanted the city to have a more public, more formal process for prioritizing the repair and upgrade needs of city parks. It was also spurred somewhat by city staff’s desire to apply for large grants; comprehensive plans look good on grant applications.
City staff and consultants have already met with a slew of user groups, including the Winona Area Mountain Bikers, the Winona Area Basketball Organization, Winona State University’s Outdoor Education and Recreation Center, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, Winona County, Livewell Winona, Fastenal, Trinona, and Great River Shakespeare Festival. Ubl said that many more user groups are on the city’s docket, including all manner of youth sports organizations, Visit Winona, Trout Unlimited, Winona Area Public Schools, and Saint Mary’s University, to name a few.
Last Tuesday, the city held the first public input session of the planning process. Dozens of Winonans gathered around tables, debated whether the deer park was worth saving, laid out wish lists for the parks system, and brainstormed potential solutions, including several suggestions that the city adopt a half-cent sales tax to fund park improvements.
Many people encouraged the city to make it easier for people to find parks and to walk and bike from one park to the next. Improving bluff trail signage, establishing a public swimming beach, and improving river access and docking were all common refrains.
Pam Eyden is the one City Council member on the new comprehensive parks plan task force, and she was tickled to hear several people say they wanted real bathrooms in the parks, not just porta-potties. It is an issue Eyden has raised at several council meetings. “If we’re going to up our game as a regional recreation center … we need to take better care of people’s comfort and hygiene,” she said.
On comment boards, someone suggested the city close Seventh Street between Sobieski Park and Gabrych Park to create new park space. At Sugarloaf and Holzinger Trails, several people advised, “Control erosion.” “Is it safe?” someone wrote of Latsch Island.
Eyden said that affordability was a recurring theme at her discussion table. Several people said that, for some families, fees were a barrier to taking part in recreation programs. “We talked about the possibility of a sales tax,” Eyden said, though someone mentioned that sales taxes are often considered to be more regressive — they affects poor people more — than property taxes. “Everything we want is going to cost money,” Eyden stated.
Many of the issues people raised — including creating a beach and improving park access — were called for in the city’s 2007 comprehensive plan. That plan laid out a vision for the future of the city as a whole and included a sizable section on city parks. The city has made progress on some of the to-do list items that the 2007 plan recommended, such as enhancing winter recreation activities and unifying the park and recreation department and the park maintenance department. However, other suggestions from that plan remain undone — such as creating a parks commission.
“An official citizens’ commission or committee should be established to provide coordinated input on park, recreation, and trail improvements and to monitor the progress of park planning efforts,” the 2007 plan recommended. It proposed such a group, in part, because at the time Winonans felt there was a “lack of sustained public input.” The plan explained, “Because there is no city-wide park board or advisory committee, city parks staff only hear from the pubic regarding specific issues … As a result, there is no way to balance competing demands and assess priorities on a citywide basis.”
The idea of a creating a parks committee came up again during Tuesday’s roundtable discussions. However, in an interview, Ubl said that he would be concerned about creating such a committee without setting clear parameters for its work. “If it’s not a clear mission or vision, then I’d be concerned that any group or committee could struggle,” he stated. At the same time, he said, “Community input like we’re getting right now is great. We want to continue that.”
The city is planning more public outreach events in May and June. Keep reading the Winona Post for more information.