by Frances Edstrom, columnist
When the Second Street Historic District was formed, my husband and I owned the buildings where the Winona Post, consignment business and massage business are located in the middle of the block. At the time, Cone’s Ace Hardware was on one side of us, Winona Fire and Power on the other. Doc Speltz had just renovated the beautiful old northwest corner building, and there was a neighborhood bar where the Acoustic Cafe is now.
Luckily, the building owners were on the same page about the designation, and as soon as the logistics of alley ownership, parking and such could be worked out, the designation was given the green light. But such historic designation and the rules that come with it are not always welcomed so readily by viable businesses.
Presently, there is a boom in new building downtown, as well as building renovation, mostly courtesy of the founders of Fastenal. Renovating those old downtown buildings is not financially easy for most business owners. Just ask the owners of the old Mason Jar building on the corner of Third and Walnut. You must remember the hoops they jumped through and the social media beating they took.
Banks that lend money to small businesses want to know one thing: How are you going to pay this back? Since most small businesses are designed to support their owners and their few employees, with no big bags of money left over, spending on renovation projects that won’t see any added value to the businesses’ bottom line are not in the cards.
Certainly, there are a lot of downtown buildings that have upper stories that could be converted to student housing, and there are already many rental units downtown. (And little parking to accommodate them.) But there are deterrents to those plans, as well. Most small business people who own their own buildings are kept busy well more than 40 hours a week running their own businesses.
Those downtown apartments that are successful are run by building owners whose business is being landlords, and their jobs are not easy, either. Screening potential renters, making sure they don’t burn the building down, or flood the unit below them, or vandalize the place are among the headaches. You can imagine others, including being on a first-name basis with most of the police department.
Winona’s downtown began as a commercial district, a combination of retail and manufacturing. An article in the Post cited the fact that Bay State Milling’s silos have stood on the waterfront for almost 120 years. There are several successful manufacturing businesses, lumberyards, and such that still operate along the riverfront.
You will often hear people complain bitterly about these manufacturing enterprises, and the fact that there are railroad tracks in the downtown that serve these businesses, that they are taking up valuable (?) riverfront property.
But let’s not forget that it is Winona’s diverse and successful manufacturing base that pays the bills around here, employing thousands of people and paying their taxes regularly. Asking them to curtail their businesses because we perceive them to be in the way of what we see as progress, or worse yet, to move their operations at an astronomical cost to them, is not a good financial move.
The Post article of December 31 also cited Stillwater and Red Wing as two cities where historic designations have been successful. Yes, they are very attractive. No, they cannot always keep their historic renovated buildings fully rented, as you can see if you drive down their main streets. And yes, it is the efforts of the manufacturing businesses in those cities that have allowed the renovation.
Our community is comprised of many diverse people with many diverse interests. It is the combination of all these diverse efforts that make Winona so wonderful. We can boast thriving manufacturing, arts and entertainment, educational, commercial, and environmental sectors. It is important that we all strive to co-exist, and resist the temptation to vilify each other or thwart each other’s success to attain our individual goals.