Palmer Lee and Kendl Winter of the Lowest Pair performed at the Masonic Temple for Mid West Music Fest in 2016. The Winona City Council is debating whether it should keep the theater.
by CHRIS ROGERS
As Winonans read this, contractors are in the middle of a $1.8-million project to refurbish the Masonic Temple theater — replacing the theatrical rigging equipment, reflooring the stage, and upgrading restrooms. That work was already underway late last month, when City Council members debated whether the city should keep the building at all and continue making expensive upgrades to it or put the city’s money elsewhere.
“If we’re not going to keep the [senior center] at the Masonic, I’m not sure what our future use of that would be,” council member Michelle Alexander said at an August 28 meeting. “If the senior Friendship Center moves out of that building, I don’t see what our city tie to that building is,” council member George Borzyskowski echoed. “I think it’s been a money pit and will be a money pit.” Borzyskowski suggested selling the building, adding, “If we don’t have a city tie to it with the seniors, I don’t see a need to keep the building.”
Wait a minute, Mayor Mark Peterson responded. “I thought the council made a commitment a couple years ago with the [$1.8-million] bond that we set and the work that is being done there. We set a vision for the downtown and to create an arts district,” he said. “I think that [the Masonic Temple] is important for the revitalization of downtown … I think it’s part of a bigger vision, and I think it’s important to keep the momentum going,” he added.
On the building’s second and third floors, the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre has hosted community theater performances, Mid West Music Fest shows, and Frozen River Film Festival award ceremonies, but its use as an events and performance venue is occasional. By far the building is busiest on the first floor, where the city’s senior center, the Winona Friendship Center, is stationed. The Friendship Center is the only city government program housed in the city-owned building, but it may not stay there for long. After years of talk, the council started this year seriously pursuing a plan to move the senior center out of its current, cramped quarters and into a new location. City staff and the council pencilled in a $5-million project to relocate the Friendship Center in the city’s spending plans for 2020.
While a definite plan for what to do with the Friendship Center and where to move it has not been decided, the council voted last Monday — Alexander dissented — to try to purchase the Central school building. Purchasing and refurbishing the building could cost the city several hundred thousand dollars. Earlier this month, council members and city staff said the city is focusing on Central as a potential site for the Friendship Center, but city leaders added last week that the city may have other uses for the building, such as converting it into a new police and fire station or selling it to a private developer.
Meanwhile, the city is halfway into a multi-year, multimillion-dollar series of repairs and upgrades aimed at making the Masonic Temple a top-notch downtown performing arts center. The city spent over a half-million dollars in 2016 repairing the temple’s roof. After this year’s $1.8-million project to upgrade the theater space, the Masonic Temple building still needs roughly $3 million in masonry repairs, heating and cooling system replacements, and other upgrades to meet building codes and make the space more functional, according to city estimates.
Until now, other city leaders have been largely supportive of Peterson’s vision for the Masonic Temple. In 2016, Port Authority Commission members and Winona Area Chamber of Commerce President Della Schmidt posed on the Masonic Temple roof with golden shovels, celebrating the project as a sort of “groundbreaking” and a sign of the city’s commitment to making the Masonic Temple a premier venue and a big part of the Opportunity Winona project’s plans for drawing visitors and new developments downtown.
In 2016 and up until early 2017, Mike Slaggie’s nonprofit Hurry Back Productions had pledged to split the cost of future investments in the Masonic Temple with the city and to host a series of regular, high-caliber arts and music events there. Then, as the council was about to vote on borrowing $1.8 million for this year’s theater improvements, a debate over whether to save the temple’s collection of historic backdrops or make more space for modern theater equipment led Slaggie to withdraw his offer. He said the council could not make a decision on the drops. Despite losing their funding partner and show-runner, city leaders went ahead with the $1.8-million bond. “We still think having a performance space within that building would be good for Winona,” Peterson said at the time. “We think this project is important to Winona, and we’re still interested in doing it.” Alexander expressed a similar sentiment at the time: “I think we’ll still have a viable community project there, it just won’t be with matching [private] dollars.” Borzyskowski expressed doubts about the project and even suggested selling the building at that time, but ultimately the council voted unanimously — Alexander and Borzyskowski included — in favor of this year’s $1.8-million theater-upgrade project.
Earlier this year, the city had been on course to tackle more of the Masonic Temple’s outstanding needs next year. In July, city staff proposed borrowing another $1.3 million to replace the Masonic Temple’s HVAC system in 2019. Currently, the building has no air conditioning. Asked after a July meeting if he supported the HVAC proposal, Borzyskowski said, “I guess it has to be done,” adding, “It’s going to be an arts venue.” City staff later trimmed the project down to only include new heating and cooling for the building’s upper floors at a cost of $770,000. It was still slated for construction in 2019 until the council’s August 28 budget meeting.
The City Council needs to have a bigger decision about how it can afford to take care of all of the facilities it owns before it invests another $770,000 in the Masonic Temple, Alexander said at that meeting. “It’s not that I don’t want to ever put the HVAC in, but if we’re looking at purchasing other properties and abandoning that building for the senior center, which is its primary use, I don’t see the need to — this year — put that money into that facility,” she stated.
Council members agreed to postpone the HVAC project, but their debate raised larger questions about their commitment to the Masonic Temple.
In an interview, Alexander further explained her position. She said she was supportive of the roof repairs and other urgent needs to maintain the building’s structural integrity, but that when she voted in favor of the $1.8-million theater upgrade project, it was with some hope that Slaggie might change his mind. Since then, the Slaggie Foundation has invested in upgrading Cotter Schools’ St. Cecilia’s Theater instead, and the city has turned its eyes toward finding a new senior center.
If the city is considering owning two buildings that will require hundreds of thousands of dollars in investments, Alexander said, “To me, it doesn’t make sense to split our resources like that without having a good sense of what it would all cost.” Alexander argued that the city should have waited for a still unfinished study on the Friendship Center’s needs to be completed before making a purchase offer on Central school. Likewise, the council should decide what it wants to do with the senior center before making more big investments in the Masonic Temple, she added.
Alexander admitted that she had doubts about whether the Masonic Temple’s theater would get enough use to justify the city owning and maintaining the building. “I question the size of the property for just the theater,” she said, adding, “Although I love the idea of a downtown theater that’s widely used, I’m not sure who is programming that.”
Maybe the Masonic Temple can still be a destination arts venue, but maybe some other group can own and maintain it, Borzyskowski suggested at the August 28 meeting. “I think it would be best — if arts is what we’re really looking at in that building — to market the building. There are arts groups out there and different venues out there that will probably put it to much better use than we would. We’re in the business of providing police protection, fire protection, snowplowing, streets, sewer, water. Yes, we support the arts … but do we actually need this building to continue to promote it?”
Local arts organizations would like to put on events at the Masonic Temple, but it is a little far-fetched to think they could afford to own, upgrade, and maintain the building, several local arts leaders told the Post. “I’m not aware of any organizations in this area that would have the capacity to do that, either financially or in terms of management capacity,” Winona Fine Arts Commission Chair Theresa Remick said. “I think it would be difficult especially for the nonprofits,” Great River Shakespeare Festival Managing Director Aaron Young said. “We’re getting 65 percent of our revenues from contributed sources, and to take on the mortgage for such a significant piece of real estate and the upkeep would be beyond our ability to finance. I don’t know if there are other arts organizations in town that are able to take on that level of liability for a building like that.” Other cities in the U.S. — including Red Wing — have successful arrangements where the city government owns and maintains a downtown theater and local art organizations run the programming, Young noted. “I think that’s a model we should look at,” Peterson said in an interview.
Pointing to the investments the city has already made in the Masonic Temple, the mayor continued, “Now is not the time to change course, in my opinion. I think we need to stay the course. We have a plan to revitalize our downtown. We’re seeing really good things happen here,” he stated, referring to the Main Square Development next door to the Masonic Temple and other big downtown development projects, including 60 Main Street and the Fastenal riverfront office building. “If were serious about an arts district in downtown, this is a very important piece of that, and I think it’s something that the decision was made. We unanimously decided to bond and spend money. We’re well into spending the money. I just don’t see us backing out of it now if the Friendship Center does move.” He added, “I think the first conversation we should have is, what other uses of that building should we have on the first floor?”
“There is a dire need for spaces for our organizations to hold events and do our work,” Remick stated. “I would say that’s one of the major needs in Winona is a lack of [venues]. So I would love to see the city fulfill it’s commitment and make the Masonic a vibrant performance space … I think with everything that’s happening with Main Square and other projects downtown — I think to sell that building or abandon that building would be a misstep by the city.”
Completing the upgrades to Masonic Temple and creating a new senior center are both expected to be multimillion-dollar projects. Can the city afford to do both at once? “I can’t necessarily answer that question of whether we can do both or not,” Peterson responded. “But I can tell you that our auditors have told us that we have the capacity to do more bonding than we have before. We need to be very selective on what we’re bonding for, but we have the capacity to do that.”
According to its financial advisors, the city can afford to take on more debt, although it would need to levy taxes to cover annual loan payments. “You still have to pay those taxes,” Alexander said of bonding. “It’s not free money.”
Maybe it is not a bad idea to go ahead and borrow now before interest rates rise anymore, council member Al Thurley said at the August 28 meeting. “We might want to think about that, especially because interest rates are fairy moderate, especially for municipal bonds,” he stated.
“I think we need to move very cautiously on this,” Borzyskowski said in an interview. “Before the council can make a forthright decision [on the Masonic Temple], what are we doing with the senior Friendship Center?” he asked.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.