by CHRIS ROGERS
A proposal for the future of the Winona Friendship Center got off to a bumpy start at a City Council meeting on Monday.
The Friendship Center is the city’s senior center. It is currently located on the first floor of the city’s Historic Masonic Temple Theatre building, a space that has long been cramped by the center’s growing membership and programming. This spring, city staff and consultants from the firm ISG studied whether the Masonic Temple could accommodate both an expanded senior center and active use for arts events or whether relocating the Friendship Center to the city’s East Recreation Center (ERC) would make more sense. Because of space limitations at the Masonic building, ISG ultimately proposed that the city expand the ERC at a cost of $5.4 million and relocate the Friendship Center there.
City staff were hoping the council would provide guidance on Monday on whether to include the $5.4-million project in the draft 2020 budget, but the brief meeting ended with more questions than consensus. City Council members and the press did not receive ISG’s written report until after the meeting. Staff and consultants spent the first 30 minutes of the 45-minute meeting presenting slides explaining the report, and council members said that the remaining 15 minutes did not give them enough time to ask questions about the study. “It’s hitting us cold,” City Council member Al Thurley said in an interview.
“I’m just a little disappointed,” City Council member Michelle Alexander said. “I thought there would be a more even-handed look at how the Masonic would be used, but all we heard were very negative things,” she stated.
ISG’s study analyzed three options: keeping the Friendship Center at the Masonic Temple, relocating some of the Friendship Center’s programs to the ERC, or moving the entire senior center to an expanded ERC. The study did not include cost estimates or details for the first two options. City staff and consultants explained that keeping the Friendship Center at the Masonic Temple was eliminated as an option because there was not enough space and because of safety concerns. The study recommends that the Friendship Center needs 19,000 square feet for its various activities, events, and offices. Its current space is 9,500 square feet. The third floor of the Masonic Temple would only offer an extra 3,500 square feet, the consultants reported, while the second floor would not be useable by both the senior center and arts events because arts organizations would need the theater space for rehearsals and set-up. The consultants also noted that the Masonic Temple’s current elevator is too small to fit a stretcher, and that raised safety concerns about using the upper floors for senior center programming.
ISG and staff’s proposal would expand the ERC from its current 13,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet while increasing green space on the block. Winona Park and Recreation Director Chad Ubl said the expanded ERC would accommodate both the senior center and the ERC’s current youth and adult programming. It would not just become the new senior center, he stated, “It is a community center.” The proposal would not add off-street parking to the ERC, but the block’s on-street stalls offer more parking than the Masonic Temple does.
Under the proposal, the entire Masonic Temple would be available for use by arts organizations and for arts events, though the details of what it would be used for are yet to be determined. The Masonic Temple needs at least another $1.5 million in repairs and updates, according to city estimates.
Alexander felt the ISG study discounted the idea of keeping the Friendship Center at the Masonic Temple and did not provide enough information on the future of the Masonic building if the senior center is moved. “It makes me a little bit unhappy because I am dedicated to the Masonic … and it right now has a use,” she said. “And even if ultimately we decide to move the senior center, what we got [in the study] were a bunch of safety issues that make me question whether the building should be used by anyone. Forget seniors. If it’s not safe for seniors, it’s not safe for anyone.”
She continued, “I’m looking at a choice, then, between restoring the Masonic like we wanted and moving forward with this plan [for the ERC and Friendship Center].”
Secondly, Alexander asked, if the Friendship Center needs 19,000 square feet, how could a 20,000-square-foot ERC accommodate both the senior center program and programming for youth?
Thurley concurred with Alexander about any safety issues at the Masonic Temple being important regardless of how the building is used. Consultants said a larger elevator could be installed, but they did not prepare a cost estimate for it.
“I’m with council member Alexander; the study really focuses on the ERC over the Masonic,” Mayor Mark Peterson said in an interview after the meeting. “If the best solution for the community is the ERC and we can afford to do it, we should do it,” he stated. However, he still had questions about whether keeping the senior center at the Masonic Temple was not feasible.
The City Council tentatively pencilled in a $5-million budget for the Friendship Center’s relocation in its last long-term planning document, called the capital improvement plan. Now that city staff are proposing to actually fund the relocation, would council members support a $5-million price tag? “Well, it’s big. It’s a very big price tag, but then any option we do could be expensive,” Peterson said.
“We’ll see how things turn out, and how much bonding capacity we have, and what the community wants,” Thurley said of the estimated cost. “It’s a large project by any definition and we have other needs in the community,” he added.
Friendship Center member Chuck Toulouse said he also felt the report lacked detail, but said he liked the concept of moving the Friendship Center to an expanded ERC.
“We love the fact that it’s all on one level, we love the fact that it has green space, we love the fact that we don’t have to cross busy streets,” Friendship Center member Alan Leonhardt said of the proposal. “It’d be a great step forward for the community, as well as for the Friendship Center,” he added.
The City Council plans to discuss the plan further before deciding how to proceed.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.