by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona County is officially selling its 177 Main Street office, the Winona County Government Center. After years of talk about the possibility, the County Board unanimously agreed yesterday to put the building up for sale.
Fritz proposed the sale after an investment group recently approached him with interest in buying the building. Under state law, the county needs to publicly advertise the sale and make the property available to any bidder. Fritz declined to reveal who the would-be buyers are, but added, “It’s a legitimate offer and legitimate interest.” The County Board approved a proposal to advertise the building’s sale without discussion or debate.
County officials have discussed selling the government center for years. Many of them believe it would be a financial boon for the county. Parts of the government center are already underutilized, and reductions in staffing and the digitization of records have opened up significant space at the county’s Third and Washington streets office, the Winona County Office Building. Consolidating the two offices into a single building would reduce the county’s annual operations and maintenance budgets and allow the county to avoid major repairs to the government center that the County Board has been putting off. Plus, the sale would generate a chunk of one-time cash for the county.
Some past discussions ended with the County Board directing staff members to seek opportunities for renting out space at the government center, but that never materialized. Other discussions stalled at the County Board level because commissioners were unwilling to privatize the driver’s license center. With its need for customer parking, waiting areas, and lots of counter space, the license center is the one government center department that the county office building does not have enough space to accommodate.
Convinced that building consolidation was a rare opportunity to make a big difference on reducing the county’s budget deficit for the long-term, commissioner Steve Jacob pushed last December to revive the idea of selling the government center. In recent years, county property tax hikes have typically passed on 3-2 votes with Jacob and commissioner Marcia Ward dissenting, but this past winter, Jacob offered to vote for a levy increase if a commitment to direct staff to study building consolidation again was tied to the tax hike vote. Jacob’s colleagues agreed to the deal, and since then, Fritz has followed through on the direction he was given.
Fritz, with the help of space planning consultants, developed a rough plan for how to consolidate county offices into one building. He has yet to unveil a detailed plan for exactly how departments will be rearranged and said that some work is still needed, but Fritz said he is confident that it is feasible. Fritz said he will share a plan with the County Board soon. If the County Board does not support the consolidation plan, the prospective sale will be scuttled, he explained.
As he has described it, Fritz’s consolidation plan assumes that the county will continue to operate the license center — which is a modest moneymaker for the county — but not inside a county-owned building. The plan would require the county to rent space for the license center, either by leasing back its current home inside the government center from the new buyers or by renting space in some other building. Fritz said that employee parking is another hurdle to building consolidation — parking is tight at the county office building — but that the county maintenance building on Washington Street and the monument building on Third Street could be demolished and used for parking. A conference room at the county office building could be reconfigured to host County Board meetings, he added.
Asked if the prospective buyers were interested in the building itself or the land, Fritz said he was not sure. He stated, “They’re looking at it as an investment, and they said they don’t have any immediate plans for it.” Fritz added that, before some of the other major development projects proposed and underway downtown, the county would not have gotten an offer like this out of blue. “I’m sure all of the development downtown has played a big role in this,” he stated.
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