by CHRIS ROGERS
What should Winona’s future look like? Candidates for the Winona City Council laid out their visions for the island city and touched on issues, from affordable housing to downtown parking, at a League of Women Voters (LWV) forum earlier this month.
In the city’s only competitive race, Gerry Krage and Eileen Moeller are both vying to represent the Second Ward (west-central Winona). At the league’s invitation, uncontested Fourth Ward (East End Winona) candidate George Borzyskowski participated in the forum, as well. Candidate Michelle Alexander is unopposed in an election for an at-large (citywide) seat. She was invited, but unable to attend the forum.
“I’ve been a councilman for the last 32 years, and for all those years, as your Second Ward councilman, I’ve worked extremely hard for the citizens of Winona, fighting to keep taxes down while providing the necessary services, the usual services — police, fire, streets, parks, library, etc., as well as the various programs for everybody, especially Winona’s seniors and youth,” Krage told the crowd. Krage is a Winona native and military veteran who currently works at the Winona Workforce Center.
“My experiences early in my career working for small, family-owned businesses helped me gain an appreciation for the time and effort it takes to run a business in a way that is both fulfilling and profitable,” Moeller stated. “I feel those experiences have prepared me to support and encourage business owners and entrepreneurs here in Winona. My past and current work with nonprofits has prepared me to understand budget constraints, seek new grant opportunities and think creatively about how to work within our means while also thinking innovatively about how to grow, to have a vision for the future, and not just be satisfied with the status quo.” Moeller works at Great River Shakespeare Festival and sits on the city’s Fine Arts Commission.
Asked about the most important issues facing Winona, Krage answered, “The number-one item I’ve worked on the hardest for as long as I’ve been doing this job has always been safety. If you don’t have safe streets, if the taxpayers don’t feel safe, the neighbors don’t feel safe, all the other things don’t make as much of a difference. Safety [comes] first and foremost.” Krage said that creating opportunities for citizens was another top priority for the city. “Why do people want to stay here? There have to be opportunities, whether that be recreation opportunities, job opportunities, or retirement opportunities,” he stated. None of that can happen without finances, Krage continued, calling the city’s budget one of the most important and difficult parts of the council’s job.
When LWV moderator Stephanie Nuttall asked to name the top three issues facing the city, Moeller pointed to housing, transparency, and transportation. “Whether that means the state of our roads and repairing them, the availability of bike paths for those who don’t have cars, or our sidewalks for pedestrian safety — there are many curbs where it is difficult to get over if you have a wheelchair, if you have a stroller, if you have a walker, and I think addressing those very basic infrastructure needs is essential,” she stated. Moeller continued, “I would also say that having housing is a need in our community. Having housing available for seniors who still want to own but want to downsize, for families who want to buy their first house, and for low-income families who are looking for reasonable rent.”
Borzyskowski focused on the budgetary and transportation issues other candidates addressed, but also highlighted the importance of economic development. “We need to have businesses grow and have businesses continue to look at our city, and we need to continue to let these businesses know the opportunities that we have. We’re 15 minutes away from a major interstate. We have water transportation and rail transportation,” he stated.
When Nuttall asked the candidates, “What are the three greatest assests the city can use to bring new business, industry, and tourism to Winona?” Borzyskowski pointed again to the availability of truck, rail, and barge transportation. “Tourism — we have that going well,” he added. “Our arts culture is taking off very big. We’re seeing many things happening here … and people are getting to know that Winona is a hub where entertainment happens.”
Krage echoed Borzyskowski’s comments and reinforced his message about public safety: “To bring in anything, it’s got to be a safe town, and we are.” He added, “I don’t want to forget about our people. I think one of the biggest assets we have here [is] it’s not just Minnesota nice, it’s Winona nice.”
“Recreation is one of our biggest assets,” Moeller answered. “It’s something that was here before the city was built. We have wonderful natural resources right at our fingertips, and I think those are not only drivers of tourism but they’re also drivers for entrepreneurship.” She stated that Winona’s strong arts culture brings millions of dollars of commerce to the city, as well.
If elected, what would the candidates do to make housing affordable in Winona? The city has done a great job, Krage said, pointing to the numerous state grants the city has won to fund the rehabilitation of owner-occupied homes. Over several years, these grants have provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest-free loans to fund home repairs for low-income Winonans in select neighborhoods. “It either keeps someone in the house longer, if they want to, or it makes the house marketable,” Krage said of the program.
If developers want to build affordable housing, there are state and federal grants available to help them do that, Borzyskowski responded.
One thing the city could do to make housing more available in Winona is to encourage the development of new housing for independent seniors who want to downsize, Moeller stated. Citing the city’s 2016 housing study, she noted that there are older home owners in Winona who want to move into a smaller house or condo, but do not have any options to do so. If the city could help create those options, it would free up more single-family homes for first-time buyers as those seniors move out of their existing homes, she stated.
This January, parking experts hired by the city released a study of downtown parking which concluded that Winona has ample downtown parking, though there are some problem spots, there are several things the city could do to make better use of the parking it has, and someday Winona might need to build a parking ramp. The report did not put to rest a long-running debate in town between Winonans who feel there is plenty of downtown parking and those who feel the scarcity of parking is a serious problem, that new development projects will make it significantly worse by cannibalizing existing parking and driving up demand, and that the city ought to construct a parking ramp at a cost of many millions of dollars.
“I always felt the parking was not enough downtown and we always had a problem, yet we have experts come in and they will show and prove that the parking is fine downtown,” Krage said. “So it’s a perception thing. But perception often becomes reality if you’re a shopper, if you’re a visitor, if you feel there is not enough.” Krage said the city may need to step up its parking enforcement and that it should keep a close eye on parking demand. “We could always use more parking spaces, but they come at a cost. Experts say that our present [amount of business activity] right now, we’re OK, but we are looking at more. With all this business coming downtown, everything needs to come with the appropriate parking,” he stated.
“I have been asked about parking so much as I have been door knocking, and it’s a major concern,” Moeller acknowledged. “I appreciate the work that was done through the parking study, and I trust the people who have studied and who have the educational qualifications to conduct a study like that. So I think as it stands we do need to invest in a mechanism that will enforce parking, but like Gerry said, as the downtown grows, as we see more of our storefronts fill with businesses, then we need to consider what solutions we can provide as we start seeing more commerce downtown.”
“Yes, I suppose if I worked downtown, it could probably be a problem for me to park,” Borzyskowski said. “If I come down — just I’m going to go here, there, wherever — I always seem to find a parking spot.” Like Krage and Moeller, Borzyskowski indicated that he believed the conclusions of the parking study — that there was sufficient parking downtown — but said that new developments could change that. Referring to the proposed apartment-hotel complex that would eliminate public parking at a city-owned lot near Levee Park, Borzyskowski said, “Depending on what happens with 60 Main Street, that could kick off what really may have to be done.”
Election Nov. 6
The election for Winona City Council will be held on Tuesday, November 6. For information on how to register to vote and where to vote, visit the Minnesota Secretary of State’s website, www.sos.state.mn.us, or call 1-877-600-VOTE.