by CHRIS ROGERS
Up until last Tuesday night, Winona city leaders had their eyes set on Central Elementary School as a potential future home of the city’s senior center, or of its police and fire departments, or as a private development opportunity. Last Monday, city manager Steve Sarvi met with the City Council in closed session to give council members one last opportunity to adjust their offer. The council declined, and the city did not get its wish. Other prospective buyers offered Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) more money with fewer strings attached, and the School Board chose their offer over the city’s. What happens to the city’s senior center planning efforts now?
“I wish them luck,” Sarvi said of the school district leaders, adding, “That’s their decision, we certainly respect their decision and we’ll move on.” In any case, Sarvi said, “We still have an issue with the current Friendship Center and its space.”
However, Sarvi said he does not want the city to rush to move forward with selecting a different site for a new senior center. “We don’t need to have a knee jerk reaction. Let’s just move along and see how things progress,” he stated.
Sarvi brought up the possibility that, perhaps, the buyer of the new building — Winonan Shawn Beier, along with a silent partner — would be interested in talking with the city about selling or sharing the space. One of the prospective buyers who did not ultimately succeed in purchasing Central school — Andrew Brenner — offered to donate the Central school building to the city and use the rest of the property for private development. Maybe Beier would be interested in something similar, Sarvi floated, while acknowledging that he has not talked to Beier about it. “They may read this story and call us and tell us, ‘Not interested. Thanks but no thanks.’ That, then, closes that door, and we’ll move on with something else,” Sarvi added.
Asked in a Thurday interview why the city was not already moving on to considering other sites for the Friendship Center, Sarvi explained, “Because the decision by the School Board was made Tuesday night. Today it’s Thursday. I’m not going to get rolling on something in the next week or so. I think we need to take a little time, see how things shake out, and then we’ll get our group together and see where we are and start seeing what the thoughts are on where we can go from here.”
Over the course of the now six-month-long Friendship Center planning effort, the city’s process for selecting a site for the Friendship Center has changed. First city officials focused their planning efforts on combining the Friendship Center with the East Recreation Center (ERC) while at the same time stressing that the ERC was not the final site. This summer, city officials briefly talked in private with YMCA leaders about co-locating the senior center at the new Y building, and then in August, Sarvi announced abruptly that city staff had decided to pursue Central school as the main prospective site instead. At multiple points this year, council member Michelle Alexander has criticized the site selection process.
So going forward, how will the city decide where the new Friendship Center should go? “We’ll go back to that group that was meeting, the Friendship Center [task force]. Staff will go back to them and start talking to them about what has happened, where we’re at, and start talking about other options,” Sarvi stated. “We’ll go back to council at some point here and let them know where we are and give them some suggestions from the group.”
The Friendship Center task force is a group of Friendship Center members appointed to help guide the Friendship Center planning process. Because it is not a long-term, standing committee, the Minnesota Open Meeting Law may not require the task force meetings to be open to the public. Sarvi allowed the Winona Post to attend the group’s last meeting, but said he may ask that the group’s next meeting be held in private so the members can brainstorm ideas freely. “We may have that meeting without you there because we may have to throw some ideas around,” he explained. After that, meetings would be open to the press again, Sarvi stated.
YMCA Board Chair Scott Hannon said that the Y’s new facility includes plans for a phase two project that could accommodate the city’s needs for a new senior center. Sarvi said that the city could still consider that option, but that earlier this summer, city officials and the task force decided against it because of various concerns.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.