Winona leaders are discussing a feasibility and reuse study for restoring the former Winona Middle School auditorium, where pipes burst this winter, flooding the balcony and main floor.
by CHRIS ROGERS
The former Winona Middle School Auditorium is a remarkable building in rough shape. Behind the plywood that boards it up, the building's front door is adorned with rich woodwork that opens onto a high-ceilinged foyer where the words "Tickets" and "Coats" are carved into Biesanz sandstone over a box office window and a coatroom door. Plaster is crumbling off the walls and falling in piles, like rubble, onto elegant staircases. On the second floor, stone tiles line the walls and moss and algae grow in puddles under the arched ceiling and chandeliers, beside wood-paned floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook downtown Winona. The balcony is lined with hundreds of wooden seats with the letters "WHS" wrought in art deco arm rests. They face a stage that looks almost ready for its next show, but water is pooled in the front row of the balcony and the wreckage of a smashed up scoreboard hangs between the curtains. There is dust and debris everywhere.
Winona City Council member Al Thurley graduated from high school here, before it was the middle school, before it was vacated and vandalized and before it earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. He played in the pep band in the gymnasium behind the stage — a moveable wall connects the two — and he ran lighting and acted in some minor parts when his class put on Shakespeare's "A Mid Summer's Night's Dream" and erected faux trees among the audience members and wired speakers to chirp like crickets underneath their seats. Its current state makes him sad, but he is cautious about the latest push for the city of Winona to step in and save the building.
In March, Winona Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) member Peter Shortridge suggested that the city consider buying the auditorium in order to promote its restoration and redevelopment. "City staff probably know that the [city's] Port Authority or some entity could probably buy it for $1 and stabilize it," Shortridge said. The city might even ask the owner, Twin Cities-based development firm Metro Plains, to pay the city a couple hundred thousand dollars for taking it off their hands, he added. Then the city could study whether there was a feasible way to restore and reuse the building as a theater and event space or some other use, Shortridge said.
City: auditorium is structurally sound, but could be demolished
Winonans have called for the auditorium to be restored as a theater or as a programming area for the neighboring Winona Public Library in the past, but this is a significant moment in the building's history. Metro Plains utilized historic preservation tax credits to convert the old middle school's classrooms into Washington Crossings Apartments, a historic reuse project that has won state-wide kudos. Those tax credits required the Twin Cities development firm to keep the auditorium and gymnasium, but Metro Plains more or less left the old gym and theater alone. The firm did not restore them or put them to use. Now, those tax credits have expired and Metro Plains is no longer obligated to keep the auditorium standing, according to city officials. The building has always posed some liabilities — in years past, vandals snuck in to smash up the scoreboard and the roof leaked before it was replaced — but recently, the auditorium started getting flooded with water from its own drainage system. Instead of downspouts on the outside of the building, the auditorium's roof drains into pipes that run along the inside of its walls. This winter, the pipes froze and burst, then rain and meltwater poured into the building, filling in the front row of the balcony and creating a deep pool in front of the stage. When city officials heard about the flooding, they dispatched Winona Building Official Greg Karow to inspect it. The property manager now has a plan underway to replace the drains with scuppers and fix the problem, and in the interim, they have been pumping out the water.
Structurally, Karow said, the auditorium seems to be in good shape. "I'm not a structural engineer but from my observations, I did not see any cracks or splintering … I didn't see anything that was warped or listing or leaning. For the amount of water that I guess they had in there, it is still in pretty good shape," he said. "Structurally the building appeared to be in sound condition," he added.
Still, the flooding concerned some Winona history buffs and city officials. The fact that there are no longer any tax credits requiring Metro Plains to not demolish the structure is also not lost on leaders like Winona Mayor Mark Peterson. At the HPC's March meeting, Shortridge made the case for the city taking action to save the building by trying to find a new use for it, and, possibly, taking ownership of the building. "It's going to have to be some sort of quasi-public use or it's going to get torn down," he said.
During the Opportunity Winona kickoff last November, some city officials hinted at the possible development of a parking ramp at the Hardee's block. Shortridge brought that idea up and other neighboring properties. "So there's been a little discussion and I think it's probably a good time for the Port to start discussing [this] publicly and it may be useful for us to be the catalyst to bring this to their discussion," he said. Shortridge added of the auditorium, "If it could be saved and part of a more vibrant cultural district and theater district, you'd hate to lose it."
Port Authority hesitant
"I think its an ambitious project," Winona Economic Development Coordinator Myron White told Shortridge. Could Winona really support a 1,000-seat theater a block away from the Historic Masonic Temple Theater? White asked. He joked, too, that maybe Metro Plains should pay the city a couple million dollars, not a couple hundred thousand, to take it. HPC member Andy Bloedorn raised a question, too: "Metro Plains, being well-versed in rehabilitating buildings, did they ever come up with a use for it?"
Ultimately, the HPC voted unanimously in support of a much smaller step than buying the building: commissioning a historic reuse study that would identify a wide variety of ways the building could be redeveloped and provide information on the feasibility of those reuse options. At the March 9 meeting, the HPC made a formal recommendation to the Port Authority, that the Port Authority use some of the $250,000 it set aside for downtown development projects — a program the port dubbed Opportunity Winona — to fund a historic reuse study. Historic reuse studies analyze a wide variety of potential new uses historic buildings could be put to and estimate the feasibility of those reuse options. They are an important step in helping determine whether and how a historic building could be saved, and can be used to help market historic properties to developers.
On April 13, Myron White reported back to the HPC: Port Authority leaders are not interested in buying the property, and they feel the city should focus its efforts on the Masonic Temple. The Port Authority might be interested in funding a reuse study, but the Port Authority leaders directed city staff to do more research on what information already exists on the property before launching a new study. Initially, White made it sound as though the full Port Authority Commission had discussed the proposal. He told the HPC, "We've got some on the Port Board that are very supportive, and some on the Port Board that aren't supportive."
However, the Port Authority Commission — the group that is officially in charge of the Port Authority and the group the HPC made its recommendation to, also known as the Port Board — never talked about the HPC's recommendation at any of its public meetings. Instead, city staff brought the issue to a Port Authority subcommittee called the Negotiating Committee. Until late last month, the Negotiating Committee met privately, in contradiction with the Minnesota Open Meeting Law's requirement that public decisions be made in public. The Negotiating Committee has also helped plan other Opportunity Winona proposals. Its members include Port Authority Commission members Dana Johnson, Mike Cichanowski, and Thurley.
The Winona Post tried to get in the door at Negotiating Committee meetings. After the Opportunity Winona project kick-off, the Winona Post formally asked the city in December 2015 for notice of all Negotiating Committee meetings, as required by the Open Meeting Law, but city staff rejected the request. After the Winona Post threatened to ask the state government for legal help, the city agreed on April 18 to provide public notice of future meetings.
Thurley, Peterson: It would be nice, but …
It has been years since Thurley was last inside his old high school, but recently enough to see some the damage it has suffered since it was closed. He said it was sad to see the building in that state, but restoring it would be a huge task. "If you look at performance venues around town and looking at it space-wise, it's a pretty big space, and with the deterioration level — I'm not an expert, but in my opinion the funds needed to restore it would be substantial." He added, "Even if restored there is the issue of parking for the people who want to attend events there."
A map of potential Opportunity Winona projects highlights the auditorium as well as a nearby block where Winona Hardee's Restaurant is located and city-owned parking lots. The map describes the block as a space for a combination parking-retail-and-housing development, similar to the parking ramp and housing complex the Port Authority Negotiating Committee is considering at the foot of Main Street. City officials have hinted that a parking ramp at the Hardee's block could serve the Masonic Temple, WSU's new art department center in the Laird-Norton building, the library, and a restored auditorium.
Thurley continued, "It would be nice if we restored it, but at what cost and [for] what future?" When asked whether the city should play a role in restoring the building, he said the city needed more information on what that would take. When asked whether the city should conduct an historical reuse study to get that information, he responded, "Cost is always going to be an issue, but if it's not going to be super expensive to do [the study], yeah, we should go ahead and look at all the possibilities before we say it's time for the wrecking ball to move in."
"Can it be saved? Most buildings can be saved. I'd say it's a matter of whether it's practical financially," Peterson said in an interview. "I know there's a number of people who have been interested in it and just sort of walked away just because of the magnitude of the work and what it would cost. Is there a role for the city? I'm sure the city would have a role if there was a developer who was interested in it. I'm sure there is a way the city could help a developer … Should the city ourselves acquire this building? I think we should give that some serious thought because we are in the middle of fixing up the Masonic Temple and all of that is of a higher priority for the city than taking on another theater. I would love it if someone did take it on … but I don't personally see the city taking on that project."
Peterson said that it would make the most sense for Metro Plains to pay for a historic reuse study.
Metro Plains representatives were not available for comment before the Winona Post went to press.