by CHRIS ROGERS
By 2020, the Winona County Government Center will likely no longer be the center of Winona County government. Yesterday, the County Board voted unanimously to sell the government center building at 177 Main Street in Winona to Fastenal founder Bob Kierlin’s Main Square Development, LLC, for $700,000. The county will lease the building from Main Square and continue to occupy the government center while county employees prepare to move into the Winona County Office Building at 202 West Third Street.
The county put the building up for a public bid this summer after Main Square representatives approached county staff in the spring. The only other bid, from Shawn Beier’s S & M Properties, was for $161,000. Winona County Administrator Ken Fritz projected that selling the government center and downsizing the county’s building footprint will save the county $1.5 million over 10 years.
The County Board met in closed session to discuss the offers late last month, then voted to approve the sale without debate this Tuesday. Was it an easy decision? “Yeah,” County Board member Jim Pomeroy stated. “We were looking at the potential of saving six figures per year with the consolidation and we were looking at some deferred maintenance [on the government center.]” The county has already put off some expensive repair needs at the government center, including a new HVAC system.
Selling the building allows the county to avoid those large one-time expenses, eliminates ongoing, routine maintenance costs for the building, and, of course, raises $700,000 in one-time revenue from the sale. Remodeling the county office building and constructing new parking lots nearby is projected to cost the county more than the sale price, but Fritz projects that, because of reduced building maintenance costs, the consolidation will pay for itself within three years.
Fritz and his staff are still planning the details of how the county will relocate offices and remodel the county office building. By agreeing to sell the building, the County Board has now committed to consolidating buildings before having an exact plan for what departments will go where.
When it comes to realizing the projected savings from facility changes, Winona County has a mixed track record. In the 2000s, the county sold an office building it owned on the 50 block of West Third Street, then leased it back from the buyer. County staff told the board the deal would save money, but the county wound up spending more on rent than it gained from the sale.
Now, the county will pay $3,500 a month to lease the government center from Main Square. County Board members were hopeful that county staff would be able to move out of the government center and terminate the lease before 2020.
Pomeroy was confident that building consolidation will work. “Upon touring the county office building, there’s really a lot of room,” he stated. Board member Marie Kovecsi was less confident. She raised concerns about whether county employees would have enough work space after consolidation, whether welfare program clients would have sufficient privacy, and whether it would be possible to maintain security of other departments. She voted for the sale, but asked Fritz to provide regular reports and updates addressing those concerns. “I’m willing to go along with the majority on this, but I want to have input and be involved,” she stated.
Kovecsi said she also wanted to get more information on whether Main Square’s bid was a fair price. She stated that on its face, it looks like a good price, but given some of the recent, very high sale prices of downtown Winona real estate, she wanted to take a closer look at that question.
According to her campaign finance reports, County Board member Marcia Ward’s re-election campaign received $540 from Kierlin. Asked if she should have recused herself from the vote on selling county property to Kierlin, Ward responded, “[Those donations] came totally unsolicited from Mr. Kierlin. I just got a check in the mail. I never had a conversation with him about the sale.” She added that there was no contest over which bid to accept. “His bid was so much more reasonable than the other one,” Ward stated.