Cyclists cruised the Lake Park bike path in 2014. On Friday, the city released a plan for the entire parks system that, among other things, calls for less mowing and more native vegetation at Lake Park.
by CHRIS ROGERS
On Friday, the city of Winona finally released its proposed plan for the future of local parks. The Comprehensive Parks, Open Space, and Recreation System Plan calls for $23 million to $47.5 million in repairs, upgrades, and new park amenities, and the proposal includes specific recommendations for each of the city’s 32 parks and recreation facilities. There are just two weeks before the City Council may take a final vote to approve it.
The plan lays out big-picture goals for the park system, and outlines the city’s take on the needs of every park in Winona. Among its many detailed recommendations, the plan calls for removing the Prairie Island Deer Park, further developing ice climbing, and considering a swimming beach at Lake Winona. The plan puts special emphasis on the outdoor recreation potential of the island city’s backwaters and bluffs. “The importance and impact of Winona’s unique landscape cannot be overstated,” the draft plan states. “Its position on the Mississippi River, within Minnesota but on the border of Wisconsin, and amid the bluffs of the Driftless Area offers incredible opportunity …” The proposed plan also prioritizes improving bicycle and pedestrian routes between major parks.
The plan is supposed to act as a guide for the City Council, city staff, and other decision-makers for years to come. It will effectively replace a previous parks plan — part of the city’s comprehensive plan — written in 2007 by a citizen committee.
The new, proposed plan was written by consultants and city staff. Early in the planning process, this spring and summer, city staff and consultants held multiple events to seek public input and met with a mayor-appointed task force of citizens. This fall, the plan itself was produced by consultants and city staff. They incorporated input from earlier citizen meetings, but did not hold public input meetings or citizen task force meetings on the plan since this summer. City staff and consultants presented highlights from the plan to the City Council and Planning Commission earlier this month, but the actual plan itself was still being edited until late this week, when city staff released it for the first time.
Bluff Traverse Trail
One piece of the proposed plan calls for the city to spend $3.2 million on a Bluff Traverse Trail that would connect Sugar Loaf to Garvin Heights and Garvin Heights to Holzinger Trails with one continuous ridgetop path. The Bluff Traverse plan includes a proposal to reconfigure Holzinger Trails, add miles of world-class mountain biking and hiking trails, and develop new trailheads, parking areas, restrooms, and signage.
To make that plan a reality, the city would need to acquire property or easements to allow trails to cross private land. City officials are optimistic they will be able to make that happen; however, consultants also developed a backup plan for a scaled-back trail system that would not require any new easements or property acquisition.
At Holzinger Trails, the plan calls for decommissioning some of the existing trails and building new trails that would be less erosion-prone. The proposed new trails would be intended for hikers, bikers, and runners. Winona Outdoor Recreation Coordinator Ross Greedy said some of the new trails would include world-class mountain biking features. During her presentation to the council, ISG Associate Principal Amanda Prosser Legg noted how top-notch mountain bike trails made Cuyuna, Minn., a statewide attraction and helped revitalize the old mining town’s economy.
City officials and consultants believe that by connecting some of Winona’s most iconic lookouts and best trails, the Bluff Traverse Trail could be a great contender for state Legacy Fund grants. The Legacy Parks & Trails Fund gives out millions of dollars in grants every year across Minnesota.
Cross-city trail system
Some citizens have been urging city officials to think about it for years: how easily can Winonans walk or bike to local parks and how well do Winona’s parks tie into regional bicycle trail networks? City staff and consultants responded to those demands in the proposed parks plan, with a section dedicated to developing pedestrian and bicycle routes to and among parks.
The plan calls for a cross-city system of biking and walking routes that would connect neighborhoods to major parks and major parks to each other like spokes on a wheel. For example, the plan calls for pedestrian and bicycle routes that would connect Wisconsin’s Flyway Trail to Latsch Island and Aghaming Park, connect Latsch Island to Lake Park, and from there, make it easier for walkers and bikers to cross Highway 61 and reach the Bluff Traverse Trail. The plan recommends reviving efforts to establish a riverfront trail that would connect Prairie Island and Minnesota’s Mississippi River Trail to downtown Winona and trace the Mississippi River all the way to the far East End with pedestrian underpasses at Highway 61 and Louisa Street and at Highway 43 and County Road 17. In later phases, the plan calls for routes that would connect neighborhoods to the larger trail network.
For the most part, the plan does not get into specifics about what improvements are needed along each route, but consultants recommended that the city follow another existing plan, the 2017 Complete Streets Policy, which includes detailed proposals for $2.7 million in bike lanes, crosswalks, and paths.
Implementation & funding
Across the entire park system, the draft plan recommends that the city make $15.5-$30 million in repairs, upgrades, and investments in new amenities in the next five years, followed by $8-$17.5 million in improvements over the next five to 10 years after that. The plan does not include a complete breakdown of how that money should be spent, but includes rough estimates of the total funding needs at each park.
How should Winona pay for all of that? The proposed plan suggests that the city pursue all funding options, including grants, state bonding, property taxes, property-tax-funded debt, local sales taxes, a local food and beverage tax, lodging taxes, and more.
Although some city officials have said that Winona County’s decision to adopt a local sales tax to fund road repairs effectively precluded the city from adopting its own local sales tax — because they believed that would be too much sales tax for a city bordering low-tax Wisconsin — other council members have appeared open to the idea. Council member Al Thurley brought it up during a meeting earlier this month.
Council member Michelle Alexander suggested another funding idea: creating a city fund dedicated to parks and gradually putting the city’s extra money in it. The city already does this for other things. At the end of every year, if the city has a budget surplus, that surplus is divided between three funds: the equipment fund, the facility fund, and the infrastructure fund. Then, when the city is facing expensive funding needs — such as buying new police squad cars — the city taps those funds. The city has also used the facility fund to pay for some park projects. Alexander suggested creating a new fund dedicated for parks and diverting a portion of each year’s surplus into it. This would not generate any additional money for the city, but it would enable the city to save up for park improvements over time.
City staff also made it clear they plan to apply for state grant funds and may seek state bonding funds, as well. “We think it’s high time for this city to go to the state and for the state to start to leverage, not only the funds we’ve already invested in this community … but to stretch future dollars and start investing with us,” Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi said.
The first vote to approve the plan is expected to occur in just one week, on December 10, when city staff will ask the Planning Commission to recommend approval of the parks plan to the City Council. City staff say they will ask City Council members to take a final vote to approve the plan in just two weeks, on December 17. The plan is 192 pages long.
Is that enough time for the public, the Planning Commission, and the City Council to review the proposed plan? “Yep,” Winona Parks and Recreation Community Services Director Chad Ubl responded. “We’re comfortable with the timeline.”
Sarvi said that if the City Council wants to take more time reviewing the plan, the city will certainly do that. “If it appears that we’re moving too quickly, then we’ll slow down, but I don’t want to slow down just for the sake of slowing down,” he stated.
A full version of the proposed plan is available at bit.ly/2DRsxDE or by visiting www.cityofwinona.com/city-services/parks-recreation and clicking on the “2018-11-29 Winona Park System Plan_Draft” link.