by CHRIS ROGERS
There is an internal dispute going on at city hall right now. One city committee, the Port Authority Commission, wants the former Winona Junior High School Auditorium to be torn down and converted into a parking lot. Another committee, the Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC), does not want the historic building to be demolished without one last shot at saving it.
Last Wednesday, the HPC voted to recommend that the City Council make the auditorium a local historic landmark. The building is already on the National Register of Historic Places, an honor that enabled owner MetroPlains get federal and state tax credits to help fund the conversion of the former school’s classrooms into the Washington Crossings apartment complex. However, national historic status does not prevent the building from being torn down. The HPC’s proposal to designate the auditorium as a local historic landmark would give the City Council the power to say “no” to a demolition proposal. Alternatively, the City Council could choose to allow demolition even if the property is named a local landmark.
Winonans Steve Jorde and Jerry Papenfuss both have fond memories of the old junior high school auditorium and they both believe that the numerous proposed development projects nearby are a positive sign for downtown Winona’s future, but those factors led them to very different conclusions about whether to save the auditorium.
Look at all the successful, recent historic renovation projects in downtown Winona, Papenfuss said during a public hearing before the HPC. “We can afford to tear down the auditorium,” he stated. “We really don’t need it anymore.” The city already has numerous theater venues, Papenfuss noted. “I like to look forward, and we have so much going for us in this community that it’s time now for us to make use of that land. And it’s a great opportunity for a parking lot that will service that part of the community,” he added.
Jorde said he thought Winona learned its lesson during the urban renewal period, when numerous historic buildings were torn down in the 1970s and ‘80s and replaced with parking lots and mini malls in the name of progress. Meanwhile, other river cities capitalized on their historic downtowns. “We were crying 10 years later, ‘We shouldn’t have. We shouldn’t have,’” Jorde recalled. “When we talk about turning that building into a parking lot, it just doesn’t make sense,” he said of the auditorium. “It feels like we’re back to 1975; we’re tearing down the Morgan Block.”
David Wurch agreed with Jorde. “This town — from year in to year out to year in to year out, all we’ve done is destroy our history,” Wurch said.
“Who is going to pay for the renovation?” Papenfuss asked. “Should the city renovate the auditorium and then not build a new senior center?”
MetroPlains owns the auditorium, and MetroPlains Vice President Jean Huwe said that over the years, perhaps 10-15 prospective buyers have looked into renovating the auditorium. Ultimately they all walked away. “They look at some plans, and then they fall off the radar,” Huwe stated. “I suppose once they get inside and then bring [an idea] back out and work with their architects, it must just fall apart due to finding funding for a project of that magnitude,” she added.
It is unclear how much the auditorium would cost to restore. “I wouldn’t even dare throw out a figure for that,” Huwe said. A couple city officials have thrown out figures, but they have not provided any information to back those numbers. At the HPC meeting, Assistant City Planner Luke Sims said the estimated cost of restoration is between $6 million and $16 million. In an interview, he said those figures were based on other city staff members’ conversations with prospective buyers, but Sims later characterized the numbers as rumors.
It is not the HPC’s job to come up with funding and a plan to save the auditorium, HPC member Connie Dretske stated. “Often we get asked the question, where does the money come from? That’s not my job … I just answer whether the building has historic value and whether there should be an attempt to save it,” she stated.
Huwe said that MetroPlains is neutral on whether the building becomes a local historic landmark. She pointed out that either way, there is a process the company would have to go through to demolish it. Without local designation, state authorities would require the company to go through an environmental review process called an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW). MetroPlains could even be required to go through a second, far lengthier review called an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Those could be burdensome, but at the end of the day, they would not give the city the authority to block demolition. Local historic designation eliminates the EAW requirement, Sims stated. However, it gives the city the power to say “yes” or “no” to demolition. Local designation does not preclude demolition, it just requires that there be a local conversation about it, HPC member Peter Shortridge stated. “If it’s locally designated, it has to be decided locally,” he said.
After the HPC’s vote, the Winona City Council will hold another public hearing before taking a final vote on whether to make the auditorium a local historic site.
Meanwhile, MetroPlains representatives are currently working with city officials to iron out the logistics of a potential demolition. The company is also working to secure refinancing for the building before it can finalize its tentative deal with the city’s Port Authority. Under the terms proposed by city staff, the Port Authority Commission would forgive a $400,000 debt MetroPlains owes the city, if MetroPlains demolishes the auditorium and turns over the land to the city. Huwe said that demolishing the building alone is expected to cost $500,000.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.