by CHRIS ROGERS
Could a hotel, convention center, or parking ramp be on the horizon in downtown Winona? On Thursday, the city of Winona's economic development board, the Winona Port Authority Commission, dedicated $250,000 in public funds to prepare proposals for future public-private real estate development projects, such as a hotel, convention center, or parking structure. This new program is a sign that the city is serious about investing in downtown, Mayor Mark Peterson said. City and Winona Area Chamber of Commerce leaders dubbed the new program Opportunity Winona. On Monday, the Winona City Council will be asked to support it.
Opportunity Winona's goal is to identify possible public-private partnerships — future private development projects that would be funded in part with public funds — that would help revitalize downtown Winona.
From La Crosse's Block C project — a $68 million combination retail/office/apartment building and parking ramp downtown funded in part with tax breaks and public subsidies — to similar projects in Mankato and Duluth, big things are happening in downtowns across the region, said Winona Port Authority Commission member and Fastenal executive Dana Johnson. "We see Duluth and a lot of other medium-sized cities in the state of Minnesota doing projects, and I think it's important that we as a community try to bring out projects together … as a master plan and see what's available for state funding, and local support, and developers, and say, 'Hey, this is our vision.'"
Wabasha and Red Wing are currently vying for state debt funding for downtown and riverfront revitalization projects.
Peterson pointed to the amount of investment property owners have put into downtown Winona this year. In 2015, Downtown property owners have launched renovations, repairs, and new construction projects valued at $1.5 million. (See sidebar story.) "We need to capture this momentum and take advantage of this opportunity to take our historic downtown to the next level," he said at an event announcing the new program. "We want a downtown that our residents will be proud of," he added. "We want a downtown that when Winona Health recruits a new doctor, we want their first impression of downtown to be a positive one. We want a downtown that when students graduate from Winona State, Southeast Tech, or Saint Mary's, we want them to think, 'You know what? I like it here. My best option might be to settle right here in Winona.'"
Peterson continued, "When we talk to people about what they think could bring downtown Winona to the next level, they talk about a downtown that showcases the history of our city and gives us a sense of place, a downtown that's a hub for arts and culture, a downtown that has first-class lodging and conference facilities, a downtown being a dining destination, a downtown with more office workers and professionals coming to work on a daily basis, a downtown with more shopping choices, a downtown with choices for people who want to live downtown and, of course, parking. What will it take to make that happen?" A crowd of business leaders laughed at the rhetorical question. "A lot," Peterson said. Opportunity Winona is the umbrella under which all of those efforts will fall, he stated.
City staff plan to use the $250,000 the city's Port Authority Commission set aside to hire lawyers, financial advisers, consultants, and other professionals needed to prepare project proposals, including development agreements and tax benefit studies — which would be useful if the city were to pursue a tax increment finance (TIF) district, a form of tax break for new developments. Once proposals for public-private developments are put together using that money, city staff would bring those proposals back to the Port Authority Commission or City Council. Further approvals by those public bodies would be needed before the city would invest more money or grant tax breaks to specific projects, Winona Economic Development Director Lucy McMartin explained.
During the Port Authority Commission's meeting last week, City Council member Allyn Thurley had some questions about city funding for Opportunity Winona. "I don't see the rationale for the $250,000 — What is the basis for that amount?" he asked before he and his fellow Port Authority Commission members voted unanimously to approve the allocation. Thurley is one of two City Council members who serve on the Port Authority Commission along with appointed business leaders. "Is that something you pull out of the air or is it based out of some legitimate [rationale]?" he asked.
"Maybe a little bit of both," Winona Port Authority Commission member and Fastenal executive Dana Johnson responded. "It would be nice to have a fund set aside so staff could work on things out of that earmarked area to implement things to bring to the Port [Authority Commission] for approval," he added. "I sense there are going to be a lot of different things — probably a half dozen projects that have been talked about so far."
The Port Authority Commission has not talked about Opportunity Winona or any potential projects during public meetings.
So what sort of development projects would Opportunity Winona support? City staff said it is open-ended, but they gave some indications as to the type of projects Opportunity Winona might assist. McMartin mentioned a hotel or conference center as one possible Opportunity Winona project. The owners of the Rivers Edge Condominiums downtown have been in talks with hotel developers about selling a piece of vacant land between the condos and the existing bridge for the construction of a new hotel, and the city has studied a possible convention center/hotel/performing arts center in that area before.
The Hardee's block is another possibility, McMartin said. Hardee's is the only business on the block, surrounded by parking lots, most of which are owned by the city. City staff and Port Authority leaders have long been interested in buying Hardee's and possibly building a parking ramp at the site. Peterson, too, said addressing parking was a goal of the Opportunity Winona project.
Opportunity Winona will focus on downtown, the area around Levee Park, and the area adjacent to the new bridge, city staff explained. McMartin also said Opportunity Winona would develop proposals for projects that are already called for in the city's 2007 Comprehensive and Downtown Revitalization plans, which include aspirational plans for a conference center and performing arts center and for parking ramps.
In 2006, the city received a $250,000 state grant to study a potential $30 million performing arts and convention center. The city considered building the structure near the riverfront, over the railroad tracks, and partially in Levee Park, along with other sites. However, the city scrapped the plan and returned the money. The city has also eyed parking ramps and interpretative centers that would house the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) offices. In 2013, Peterson's Levee Park Committee talked about building a structure in or around Levee Park that would house the FWS, and in 2014, proposed building such a structure to the west of the new bridge. The FWS is one of several local businesses and organizations that are participating in the Opportunity Winona project. Also last year, City Council member Paul Double suggested that the Levee Park Committee design a parking ramp that would be built to the south of the park, and extend over the railroad tracks, partially into the park. The Levee Park Committee also discussed using TIF districts, though it was not clear to what developments the tax break would have been applied.
Convention centers, hotels, parking ramps — Opportunity Winona could help bring these ideas, that have been talked about for years, to fruition, said Winona Area Chamber of Commerce Della Schmidt in an interview. She also mentioned that Opportunity Winona could help support the development of high-end rental housing in the downtown area aimed at professionals. Winona businesses have reported that many of their top recruits are not ready to buy a home but have trouble finding attractive housing options in Winona.
Schmidt explained that the chamber supports the program because promoting downtown will help Winona businesses attract and retain top talent. "When you have a vibrant and healthy downtown, all of the community wins," she said.
At the Port Authority meeting, Thurley asked, "How does it change our funding of Main Street in Winona? Does it reduce that or does it do nothing to Main Street?" The city contributes around $30,000 a year to the Winona Main Street Program. Port Authority Commission Chair and We-no-nah Canoe owner Mike Cichanowski explained that the Port Authority could change its funding for the Main Street Program next year, if the commission members desired.
Schmidt said that Opportunity Winona would complement the work already being done to promote downtown by the Winona Main Street Program, a chamber-led program with city funding. "You can call Opportunity Winona Main Street on steroids," she said.