by CHRIS ROGERS
Parking stalls are now more valuable than storage buildings in downtown Winona. At least, they are in the eyes of Winona County leaders.
The county will soon have 100 more employees working in downtown than it has parking spaces for, according to county administrator Ken Fritz. Public and employee parking is already scarce around the Winona County Office Building (COB) at 202 West Third Street, but it is about to get a lot more crowded later this fall when dozens of employees move from another office building the county is vacating, the Winona County Government Center at 177 Main Street, into the COB.
That impending scarcity has prompted county leaders to study a plan to demolish two storage buildings the county owns and convert the sites into parking lots. The paving, asbestos remediation, and demolition could cost the county $265,000, plus the cost of renting storage space elsewhere, according to the county’s rough estimates. That cost may be easier to swallow because county officials expect savings from no longer maintaining the government center will more than make up for the price of the new parking lots.
Still, it is a sign of how much the county needs parking. Winona County may spend over a quarter million dollars to create 35 new parking spaces. That’s $7,560 per parking stall.
“Maybe we need to pass a resolution to the city of Winona that they need to build a ramp,” County Board member Marcia Ward stated. Referring to a resolution in which the Winona City Council had asked the County Board to raise the legal age for tobacco, Ward added, “They’re passing a resolution to us; we’ll pass a resolution to them.” She added, “It’s fortunate and unfortunate that we don’t know how the whole Fastenal project is going to impact parking. The city has discussed at various times, I don’t know how seriously, about putting up some kind of parking structure.”
While Winona County’s new parking lots might sound pricey, the cost of parking ramps is a whole other order of magnitude: around $23,000 per parking stall, according to a 2018 city of Winona study. So far, city leaders have concluded Winona’s parking needs do not justify that kind of expenditure. City leaders and Fastenal officials have discussed creating new parking near Fastenal’s planned 400-500-employee office building, which it plans to build next door to the COB. However, their comments have primarily focused on surface parking and no plans have been released.
The two buildings the county is considering demolishing are the former Winona Monument Company building at 174 West Third Street — where the county stores a rescue boat and other emergency equipment — and the county maintenance department building at the corner of Second and Washington streets — where the county stores snow removal and mowing equipment.
Those storage buildings are eating up prime real estate that could be put to better use, County Board member Steve Jacob stated. “To be taking that kind of real estate from downtown for that storage — we’re doing no service to the city of Winona. We’re doing no service to the community. Any of that [storage] could be done anywhere,” he said.
Late last month, the County Board gave Fritz the green light to research a plan that would rent storage space for the emergency equipment elsewhere, outsource the county’s snow removal and mowing tasks to private contractors, and demolish the two buildings. Together the two sites are expected to yield 35 new parking stalls. The county’s $265,000 estimate for demolition and paving is rough. Fritz will now solicit quotes for the work before returning to the County Board with more detailed numbers.
By outsourcing snow removal and landscaping work, the county will eliminate the need to store maintenance equipment downtown. Fritz said there will still be plenty of work for the county’s four maintenance department employees to do and their jobs would not be eliminated. “We have so much to do,” he stated. “To contract out snow and ice, and then reduce staff — I just don’t think it’d be feasible,” he added.
For the storage of emergency equipment, Fritz said he is considering a deal with the Winona Mall. Under the tentative plan, the Winona Mall would build a new, 5,000-square-foot storage building on a portion of a parking lot on the southwest corner of the mall property, and Winona County would lease the building for $15,000-$20,000 a year. The county is open to other options, but Fritz said that so far the mall has been the most affordable. “There’s a lot of buildings, but they’re either too much for us or they’re just not available,” he said.
County staff want the emergency storage building to be relatively close to the downtown Law Enforcement Center, where many Dive and Rescue Team volunteers work, and relatively close to Highway 61, from which the team can quickly reach boat launches on various pools of the river.
Ward questioned whether the storage building could be located on the county’s highway department shop in Goodview. Fritz said there is not enough room.
Fritz originally estimated that the county’s effort to downsize offices and vacate the Winona County Government Center would save $1.5 million within 10 years. Since then, the relocation has required the county to rent space elsewhere: for certain public health programs, for the license center, for file storage, and now for emergency equipment. The cost of contracting out snow removal and mowing will add another ongoing expense to the building consolidation project. However, Fritz stated the annual cost of those leases and contracts will still pale in comparison to the over $150,000 he said the county was spending each year on maintaining the government center — not to mention expensive deferred maintenance projects the government center needed, for which the county will no longer have to pay. Asked if the building consolidation project would still be a money-saver, Fritz answered, “Absolutely.” He added, “The costs we’re spending for leases are not anywhere close to what we were spending on that [government center] building.”
Some of the county’s spend-money-to-save-money efforts have not panned out in the past — from previous building consolidation plans to a data management enterprise.
Jacob pushed for the current building consolidation project and has supported Fritz’s work on it. Jacob said of the benefits of building consolidation, “It’s not just the financial win. It’s having all of our departments in one building, having administration being able to be in the same building as community services.” The community services department is the county’s largest, most expensive branch, and Fritz and other administrative staff have been working with the department to control costs and increase revenues. Currently, the community services, finance, and administration departments are in separate buildings.
Ward struck a skeptical tone, but ultimately supported the plan. “I was just asked this evening, before I came to this meeting, ‘Are we going to be saving any money by doing all this stuff?’” she said. “Well, in my opinion the sad answer is, ‘Well, initially, no. We’re spending a lot of money. Will we save money in the long run? That’s the goal.’ … It pains me to spend this kind of money, taxpayer dollars. I guess it’s in the name of quote unquote progress. Maybe it’ll pan out; maybe it won’t.”
Despite those comments, Ward agreed Fritz’s proposal was the most sensible option and voted with the rest of the County Board in favor of it.
County Board member Greg Olson, who also works as a maintenance foreman for Houston County, raised concerns about whether snow removal contractors would be able to adequately maintain county sidewalks throughout the day if snow keeps falling. The county is still going to need some snow removal equipment on hand, he said. Fritz responded the county could keep some snow removal equipment downtown and/or pay for more frequent snow removal by contractors. Olson voted to direct Fritz to pursue the plan and get more information.