Winona Friendship Center members took part in a tai chi class in 2017. In the center’s current location, space for classes like this are getting cramped.
City releases $9M to $11M estimates for new center
by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona city officials have only budgeted 45 minutes for the discussion, but on Tuesday, the Winona City Council will talk about what to do next with the Winona Friendship Center. City staff will propose that the City Council hire consultants to study keeping the Friendship Center in its current location with some remodeling. Friendship Center members asked city officials to seriously study the East Recreation Center (ERC) as a potential site, as well, and urged them not to forget about the Friendship Center’s needs.
The Friendship Center is a city-run senior center located on the first floor of the city-owned Historic Masonic Temple Theatre. Its staff and growing membership have been pushing for a new home for years. The space needs at the current, cramped senior center are real, Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi said last week. “It wasn’t just a staff member crying wolf. You’re busting at the seams. We’ve got to do something,” he told a task force of Friendship Center members.
The city started seriously looking into finding a new home for the senior center — or an all-ages community center — last spring, when the City Council approved a study that focused on the East Recreation Center (ERC) as the site for an all-ages community center. Then, this summer and fall, the city stopped pursuing plans for the ERC and looked into buying the former Central Elementary School as a home for the Friendship Center and the fire department. When the City Council was outbid in its attempt to buy Central, the city’s Friendship Center planning efforts were left in a lurch.
This summer and fall, city consultants produced conceptual designs and cost estimates for a community center on a square city block — possibly at the ERC — and for renovating and expanding Central as a community center. However, city staff refused to publicly release those designs and estimates at the time. In response to a Winona Post freedom of information request, city staff released the cost estimates: $11 million for a standalone community center with all the bells and whistles and $9.2 million for renovating and expanding Central. Also in response to Winona Post freedom of information requests, the city released tapes of closed City Council meetings on buying Central that showed some council members were seriously concerned about the estimated prices for a new Friendship Center.
Sarvi told the Friendship Center Task Force that the city is facing a series of potential multi-million-dollar projects in the next few years: the city will need a new or renovated fire station in the mid-term future, it may need a new police station, it is planning on continuing to fix up the Masonic Temple, and it is considering a new home for the Friendship Center. “We can’t do all of that,” Sarvi said.
So, Sarvi suggested, what if the Masonic Temple was renovated to keep the Friendship Center where it is at? Perhaps the building could be programmed for a dual use, with performing arts in the evenings and weekends and senior center activities during the day, he said.
Friendship Center Task Force members did not love that idea. The Masonic Temple has very little parking, accessibility for people with limited mobility is a huge problem, it is small, and there is no outdoor greenspace, members said. Sarvi said that he believed the city could come up with parking within a couple blocks and address the accessibility problems. “I’d challenge any one of these City Council members to take a wheelchair, a walker, or a cane and walk those two blocks in the wintertime,” task force member Gloria Hammond responded.
The ERC would be a much better option, the task force stated. It has parking, more space, and the potential for a real all-ages community center, the members said. Ultimately, they recommended that the City Council study both the Masonic Temple and the ERC as potential sites.
Until now, the city’s planning efforts have largely focused on one site option at a time — first the ERC, then Central, now the Masonic — or on no site in particular. At public outreach events last year, city officials encouraged citizens not to spend a lot of time commenting on the pros and cons of one site over the other. However, task force member Frank Pomeroy said that it would be valuable to put the Masonic and the ERC side-by-side and compare apples to apples.
Sarvi said he would not recommend studying both to the City Council, but he would bring the idea to them.
City officials do have at least two other options they are not seriously considering right now. Winona Area YMCA Board Chair Scott Hannon has said the Y could accommodate the city’s senior center as part of a phase-two addition to its current building project for a cost of $6 million. The new owners of Central — Dan Nisbit and Shawn Beier — have said they are open to selling or leasing the building to the city. Winona Parks and Recreation Community Services Director Chad Ubl said that issues with governance were a sticking point in past conversations with the Y, and Sarvi said that he doubted the City Council was willing to pay more for Central than its bid last fall, which was lower than what Nisbit and Beier paid for the property.
The City Council will meet at 5:45 p.m. on Tuesday in the Wenonah Room on the third floor of city hall to discuss the future of the Friendship Center. Because the regular council meeting will start at 6:30 p.m., the council will have just 45 minutes to discuss the senior center and another major topic: how to fund the multi-million-dollar park improvement project the city is planning. This meeting is open for the public to attend, but no public comment is scheduled.