by CHRIS ROGERS
For years, Winona city leaders have talked about creating a bigger, better home for the city’s growing senior center and turning its current home, the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre, into a destination performing arts venue. Now, the City Council has turned away from planning for a new senior center location and is instead focusing on whether an improved senior center and performing arts venue can both fit into the Masonic Temple Theatre.
‘Glaring need’ gives way to optimism about current site
Once upon a time, in 2017, City Council member George Borzyskowski told senior center members that the Winona Friendship Center is going to need a new home sooner or later. Last spring, a crowd cheered when the council voted to fund a study to design a new Friendship Center, and Borzyskowski recalled the same 2017 meeting: “I said, ‘What is it you really need?’ And it was a resounding, ‘A new facility.’ So that was it, and I guess we’ll have to try to find a way to make that happen.”
For months, city officials and consultants did study concepts for a new Friendship Center facility, first with no particular location in mind, then focused on expanding the city’s East Recreation Center (ERC), and then with city officials zeroed in on the former Central Elementary School as the site of choice. However, when the City Council’s attempt to purchase Central failed — the city was outbid last fall — city staff put the Friendship Center planning efforts on hold, and acknowledged they needed to decide: what now?
“Staying at the current location, yes, is an option,” Borzyskowski said in an interview. Last week, Borzyskowski and the rest of the City Council endorsed city staff’s proposal to hire consultants to study keeping the Friendship Center at the Masonic Temple. “To me, I think they can make do inside [the Masonic] with their remodeling and things, but regardless of what we do inside, parking is the biggest question that we have. Where are people going to park?” Borzyskowski stated. “And I think this reuse study will give us an idea of where that can be.”
Parking is one of the biggest concerns Friendship Center members have with the Masonic Temple. The construction of the Main Square Community project on the neighboring block has eliminated scores of public parking spaces, and last spring, city manager Steve Sarvi said that loss of parking “presents the glaring need” for a new Friendship Center location.
“The big glaring [problem with the Masonic] is, if we stay here and there’s a dual use, what do we do for parking?” Friendship Center member Dorothy Duellman asked Sarvi at a meeting this month. Friendship Center members expressed a strong preference for the ERC over the Masonic Temple, and urged the City Council to study the ERC in addition to the Masonic. The new study will not include the ERC, Sarvi told the Post. Sarvi assured Friendship Center members, “There’s all sorts of ways we could make the parking situation easier.”
It may be that the Masonic Temple will not work out as a home for both the growing senior center and a performing arts center, but it is worth studying, Sarvi stated. “I’m not saying this is the only option. I’m saying, let’s study this and see if this works,” he said.
‘We have an investment already in the Masonic’
A few things preceded city officials’ change of tack from saying the Friendship Center has a glaring need for a new location to focusing on making the current location work.
First, the city’s plans for the Masonic Temple Theatre have changed. The City Council borrowed $1.8 million in 2017 to renovate the theater and bathrooms on the building’s upper two floors. The City Council had originally planned to work with philanthropist Mike Slaggie, who had pledged to split the cost of major investments in the building with the city and who had a plan to organize an events series at the venue. Other arts leaders and city officials threw out ideas for using the first floor — where the senior center currently is located — as a shared box office for Winona art organizations or a “makers space” for burgeoning entrepreneurs. However, Slaggie withdrew his offer after — as he described it — the City Council failed to make a decision on whether to keep the Masonic’s historic backdrops or make room for additional modern equipment. Instead, Slaggie made a more modest investment in renovating Cotter Schools’ St. Cecilia Theatre, which has ample parking and air conditioning. The council still went ahead with the $1.8-million project without Slaggie, but city officials have not articulated a detailed plan for how they will program the venue.
Last year, some council members cast doubt on whether the city should stay the course on its plans for the Masonic. “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 the time. “I think it’s been a money pit and will be a money pit.” Borzyskowski stated, adding, “If we don’t have a city tie to it with the seniors, I don’t see a need to keep the building.”
Last fall, Alexander criticized her fellow council members’ push to buy Central, asking, if the city cannot afford to maintain the old buildings it already owns, why would it buy another?
Alexander’s arguments did not carry the day, but it may have influenced the council’s direction. In an interview this week, council member Paul Schollmeier said that, ideally, his preference would be to move the Friendship Center to Central school. However, he stated, “You wind up having so many pieces of property that you have to maintain and pay for.” He added, “We have an investment already in the Masonic. We don’t in Central.” Similarly, Mayor Mark Peterson said the city has already invested in the Masonic and the Masonic has underutilized space waiting to be used.
$9M-$11M estimates for top-notch plans
Another factor that led up to the City Council’s recent decision was the cost estimates it received for potential locations for a new Friendship Center. In 2004, local architects produced a $3.8-million plan to expand the ERC into a new senior center and community center. Last summer, city staff used that old figure to come up with a very rough $5-million budget for expanding the ERC. Also last summer, city consultants designed a brand new all-ages community center facility — with no particular site identified — that would have included a pool, walking track, and 8,000-square-foot gymnasium that was estimated to cost $11 million. In September, consultants produced an estimated $9-million plan to renovate Central as a community center with a large gymnasium and a pool. The city only recently released the consultants’ concepts in response to a freedom of information request. In a closed meeting last fall, Alexander indicated $11 million was too much. Asked if he felt the same, Schollmeier said in an interview, “For a single facility? Yeah, I think so … Their membership is growing quickly, but I don’t know that we have the support from the community to spend $11 million solely on the Friendship Center.”
Borzyskowski was not convinced that a new Friendship Center would need to be so expensive. However, he stated, “When you start getting into the bigger ticket items, the pools and the running tracks, and everything else, you get into pretty high priced stuff and that can make your project unaffordable.”
Winona Family YMCA leaders have said the Y could build an addition to its under-construction facility that could house the Friendship Center for $6 million. City staff members have said that because Winona Health, not the city, would own the land on which the $6-million investment sits and because of other concerns, they are not seriously considering the Y’s offer.
The new owners of Central have said they might be interested in selling the property to the city.
Asked if the city should be considering Central as an option for the Friendship Center, Borzyskowski said, “I think we’re going to consider everything.” Borzyskowski later acknowledged that Central will not be part of the new study currently proposed. Should it be? “For me, we’ll consider whatever comes our way,” he responded, adding that he was uncertain of the value of Central, given that it is an older building with some repair needs.
Asked if the city should study all of the options and lay out the pros and cons of each side-by-side, Borzyskowski responded, “Jeez, how many studies do you want?” He added, “There’s so many damn options out there and so many different scenarios.” There might be some merit to all of the different options, he stated, “But we’re going to get down to the point where we’re going to have to quit studying and make a decision.”
Sarvi and Schollmeier said that the city has already studied Central and the ERC. If the council decides it wants to look more closely at an expansion to the ERC, it certainly could, Sarvi added.
City staff plan to ask consultants to prepare a formal proposal for the new study and bring it back to the City Council for approval.
Is the Friendship Center a priority for Winona?
Last Monday night, city staff budgeted just 45 minutes for the council to discuss both the future of the Friendship Center and how to fund the city’s $23-million wish list of park and trail improvement projects. So once the council agreed to staff’s plan to focus on keeping the Friendship Center at the Masonic, the group quickly turned to park project funding. In particular, the discussion centered around how the city could come up with some money to kickstart the proposed $3.2-million Bluffs Traverse project, which would overhaul the city’s bluffside trails into a world-class mountain biking and hiking destination.
“There’s money for that,” Friendship Center member Bernadette Thicke said. Why can’t the city come up with money for a senior center for citizens who have paid taxes their whole lives? she asked.
City officials are hoping that state grants will pay for the bulk of the Bluffs Traverse project, but they are interested in lining up other funding sources and possibly getting some work done in advance of a grant application. “I really think we should do what it takes to kickstart this plan and not beat around the bush,” Schollmeier said of funding the Bluffs Traverse. “Let’s get started on this.” He called for the council to consider a sales tax to provide funding for this project and the rest of the park system.
“I think a lot of the feeling that’s out there is the city has money for what it wants, and we get what’s left,” Friendship Center member Gloria Hammond stated.
Asked if the Bluffs Traverse project was a higher priority for him than the Friendship Center, Schollmeier responded, “In my book, they have equal energy. I feel that they’re both being prioritized, at least in my book, for me. One doesn’t outweigh the other.” Both projects are the kind of economic development opportunities that could make Winona a really inviting place to live, and it might be worth paying a little extra sales tax to make them happen, he stated.