by CHRIS ROGERS
On Monday, Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi announced big changes in the city’s plans for the future of its senior center. City leaders now plan on considering Central Elementary School as a new site for the city’s senior center, and the city’s plans to borrow $5 million to fund the center have been pushed back from 2019 to 2020. Sarvi said that the possibility of co-locating the senior center at the new YMCA building is off the table for the near-term future. Sarvi stated that city staff also ruled out the idea of creating an all-ages community center as a replacement to the current senior center.
After years of talk, city officials launched a formal study this spring to plan a new home for the Winona Friendship Center. The senior center’s programming is popular, but its current space — the first floor of the Masonic Temple — is cramped. City staff held two public input sessions on a new Friendship Center this year, but told citizens to focus on what amenities they want, not where the facility would be located. Until now, the city’s public planning efforts had focused on building an addition to the East Recreation Center (ERC) and converting the ERC into an all-ages community center that would combine the senior center’s programming with ERC programs for youth and adults and offer an all-ages gym. Earlier this summer, city staff had preliminary conversations with Winona Family YMCA leaders about the possibility of combining the proposed city community center and the YMCA’s planned new facility. Until Sarvi’s announcement on Monday, city staff said they were planning on holding another public input session in early September with a very rough design for an all-ages community center.
Now the city is going to focus on Central school as a site for the new Friendship Center, Sarvi announced, after the topic came up in passing at a Planning Commission meeting on Monday. Sarvi added that, “…This concept of a standalone community center is probably not going to happen.”
Earlier this summer, Sarvi and his staff had decided against making a bid on any of the school buildings Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) had put up for sale. Asked what changed since then, Sarvi responded, “What changed is we went down the road with the Y, and it’s not going to work out for us to partner with them right now.” City staff also looked at the ERC as a site and determined that would not work, he added. Then, city staff asked themselves, “What’s the next step?” Sarvi continued. Central school kept coming up, he stated. “Everyone seems to think that would be viable,” he added.
Why did city staff decide against the ERC? City officials suspect that renovating Central school will be less expensive than adding onto the ERC, Sarvi said, adding that an all-ages community center at the ERC would cost $10-$15 million, not the $5 million city staff had penciled in for the project earlier this month. Locating the new Friendship Center at the ERC was also predicated on creating an all-ages community center, a concept Sarvi said that city staff have now decided against. “We’ve looked at a ‘community center’ and he sense is it’s too much replication of what the Y is trying to do and our immediate need is not that,” Sarvi stated. The city’s immediate need is a new senior center and perhaps a pre-school, daycare, or after-school program, Sarvi said. Furthermore, Central school is more centrally located, he added. Planning Commission member Craig Porter and Peterson praised city staff for considering a centrally located site. “I think that kind of facility should be located close to the center of the city,” Peterson stated.
Now, a new task force of Friendship Center members will help city staff and consultants look into Central school as a possible site, Sarvi stated. It is unclear whether city officials will make the task force meetings open to the public.
WAPS had agreed earlier this summer to sell Central and Madison schools to Building Value Partners, but after legal challenges over WAPS’ bidding process and city Planning Commission vote against rezoning the properties the school district now plans to redo the sale of the buildings, using a realtor to negotiate with buyers instead of a public bidding process.
“Now, with the School Board putting [Central] back on the market, there’s an opportunity there for the city to take a closer look,” Peterson said. “I support that. I think the city should take a look. We’d be negligent, almost, not to.”
It is unclear how quickly WAPS will move to sell the schools again and whether the city will be prepared to make an offer on Central school in time.
“I think it depends on the details,” WAPS Superintendent Rich Dahman said of whether WAPS would be interested in selling Central school to the city. “They haven’t been real specific other than to say that they want to take a look around.”
WAPS Board Chair Ben Baratto explained that he sees Central school as a great location for the Friendship Center, citing its central location, amenities and accessibility.
“I’ve advocated for that for months. I’m speaking for myself, not the board, but I believe that Central would be perfect for the Friendship Center. There are no steps, an elevator, a large parking lot and the bus goes right by it,” Baratto said.
Baratto said that while he would support a move to make Central the new home of the Friendship Center, the School Board’s vote will depend on what proposals are brought forward next month.
Asked why the city was not considering Madison school, Sarvi said that Madison is believed to have more deferred maintenance needs and is less centrally located, though he added that Madison could be considered, too.
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