by CHRIS ROGERS
The city of Winona held a public input session in April to guide the city’s plans for a potential, all-ages community center that would replace the city’s current Friendship Center. One of the messages citizens gave city staff at that meeting: work together with other organizations in Winona; do not duplicate existing programs and services.
In the weeks following that public input session, leaders for the city and the Winona Area YMCA met to discuss whether, instead of building a multi-million-dollar, standalone facility to house a city-run, all-ages, community wellness center, the city could partner with the Y and its in-the-works project to build a multi-million-dollar, all-ages, community wellness center.
“We’re just in an exploratory stage right now,” Winona Park and Recreation Community Services Director Chad Ubl said of the city’s conversations with the Y. Whether a feasible plan that is in the best interests of the Y, Winona Health, and the city can be developed is still far from certain. Interim YMCA CEO Bill Soper said the Y had met with city officials, but that it was so preliminary that commenting on the discussion would be premature.
YMCA and Winona Health leaders have been planning and fundraising since 2013 to build a new Y that would also host Winona Health’s Rehabilitative Services department. City officials have been talking about finding a new, larger home for the city’s Friendship Center — also known as the senior center — for over a year. City and Y officials have discussed the possibility of colocating a new senior center within the new Y building before, but the talks never bore fruit. Earlier this spring, city officials said the concept was off the table. “A lot of the membership has stated that’s not really something they’re interested in,” Winona Friendship Center Director Malia Fox said in March.
Then, in April, the city began planning in earnest for, not just a new senior center, but an all-ages community wellness center. Also in April, the city held that public input session. “The city received some feedback and the Y received some feedback about the concept of, if the city is going to spend money to build a community center and the Y is going to spend money to build a community center, is this community large enough to support both?” Ubl explained.
“Do you need a Y and a community center?” Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi asked. “I’m not so sure that that’s necessary in a community of our size. There’s an awful lot that has to work out for it to make sense for both parties.” He added, “The devil is in the details.”
Ubl laid out some of those details: “Who owns? Who operates? Who maintains? What do our agreements look like, all the way down to hours of operation, fees charged, and access? One gym or two gyms?”
YMCA scholarships provide discounted Y memberships on an income-based sliding scale, but there is a big difference between a full-price YMCA membership for one adult — $46 per month — and what the city charges for Friendship Center memberships — $29 per year. Currently, the Y has a large workout facility, gyms, pools, racketball courts, and other amenities. Donations and membership fees make up a significant portion of the revenue that keeps those facilities running. The Friendship Center currently has a very small workout room, and its operations are largely funded by tax dollars. Sarvi and Ubl acknowledged that how much access to which facilities the two organizations’ members would have was one issue facing any potential partnership.
At the city’s public input session in April, Friendship Center members were not universally sold on the idea of an all-ages community center. Some loved the idea of mixing generations. Some were concerned about getting bowled over by rambunctious children. Many said they wanted a seniors-only workout facility, and city staff and consultants discussed the possibility of sectioning off seniors-only sections of a new community center.
There are also timing issues. In an interview this spring, Soper said the YMCA already had new, not-yet-released designs for its new facility and that the Y hoped to break ground in August. Last week, Soper told the Winona Post he did not have any update to give on the project timeline. “The project has been really fluid,” he stated.
“[Y leaders] have been fundraising for quite a while, and I know they’re anxious to start moving,” Sarvi stated. “So we’re not going to get in their way, but if there’s a way we can collaborate together … We certainly want to leave that door open.” He added, “They’re moving quickly toward a decision point, and if we arrived together, that could be something for us to put in front of the [City] Council to consider. If not, there may be an opportunity for us to join at a later date.”
If the idea of the city and the Y partnerning on a joint community center does not work out, that is OK, Sarvi stated. “No matter what we’re going to be good friends and good partners, and we’re going to share facilities and instructors,” he said.
It is unclear when the city and the Y will reach a decision. “We’re going to keep our lines of communication and see what happens,” Sarvi said. Soper declined to comment further on the topic. Meanwhile, Ubl said that the city is still moving forward in its process for planning a new Friendship Center/community center. City consultants have developed rough plans for what kind of facilities and space would be needed, but are still far from proposing an exact design or location. Ubl said he expects to hold another public input session on the project this summer.