by CHRIS ROGERS
Friendship Center members and Masonic Temple lovers burst into applause last Wednesday. That night, the Winona City Council agreed to pursue a nearly $9-million plan to relocate the city’s senior center to an expanded East Recreation Center (ERC) and continue renovating the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre into a multi-purpose arts center. Debt payments on the projects will cost local taxpayers nearly $1.2 million a year for the next 10 years.
The Friendship Center “deserves to grow,” City Council member Pam Eyden said, adding, “The possibilities at the Masonic building are very interesting. Let’s go.”
Eyden and the rest of the council voted unanimously to seek proposals from architects to produce detailed designs of the two projects. That design work is estimated to cost $570,000 and is subject to approval by the council later this winter. Those detailed designs will give the city more accurate estimates of the projects’ costs. To fund construction, the council would need to vote to borrow money sometime next year.
City Council member Michelle Alexander suggested the ERC expansion and Friendship Center relocation may cost more than the $5-million rough estimate city consultants provided, but she supported getting more information. “I’m curious to see what the real cost is at the ERC,” she added in an interview.
“Let’s move forward. Let’s get better details,” City Council member Al Thurley echoed.
The nearly $9-million figure includes two projects. First, an estimated $5-million expansion of the ERC in order to accommodate both the Friendship Center’s seniors-only programming and the ERC’s majority-youth activities and convert the ERC into an all-ages community center.
Second, the city would spend $3.8 million on the Masonic Temple, including $1.8 million to install a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system for the building. The upstairs theater currently lacks air conditioning. Another $2 million would be spent on various repairs and improvements: new windows, new flooring, sound equipment, renovated restrooms, aesthetic remodeling, and constructing a full commercial kitchen on the first floor and a “warming kitchen” and bar on the third floor for catering at performances.
Based on models such as the Castle Community in Rochester, Minn., and Sheldon Theatre in Red Wing, Minn., city leaders hope various organizations and companies will lease space inside the Masonic Temple and run a range of arts-related events and activities there. The city has yet to identify tenants, but several local arts groups have expressed interest in theory.
The council plans to borrow money for the two projects. City advisors did not calculate the tax impact of debt payments for both projects, but repaying just the $5-million Friendship Center project would cost the owner of a $175,000 home an additional $43 in city property taxes every year for the next 10 years.
The city’s proposals come at the same time that the owners of a $100,000 home could soon pay an additional $42 per year in county property taxes to replace Winona County’s condemned jail.
Does that projected tax impact concern council members? Raising taxes is always a concern, Thurley responded. “But we’ve done other projects that affected taxes and benefitted the community. I think this is, again, another benefit for the community,” he said.
“The part that offsets it for me is that we’re going to have a huge increase in our tax base in the next few years,” Alexander responded to the same question. A building boom in Winona — including several major projects downtown — is expected to significantly increase the city’s tax base, which would allow the city to spread out the burden of any tax increases over more taxpayers.
The City Council wants to relocate the Friendship Center from its current home on the first floor of the Masonic Temple to the ERC because the Friendship Center’s popular programs are cramped at the Masonic Temple. It needs more space, city leaders say.
The city has already invested around $3 million in the Masonic. The new project would bring the grand total up to nearly $6 million. The City Council originally started renovating the building because of a proposal from Winona philanthropist Mike Slaggie, who offered to split the cost of millions of dollars of improvements and organize concerts, events, and programming. Instead, Slaggie withdrew his offer after, he said, the council waffled on whether to keep the Masonic’s historic backdrops. Instead, Slaggie funded improvements to Cotter Schools’ St. Cecilia theater and launched a concert series there. Though they lacked a funding partner or a plan for how to program the theater, in 2017 council members continued with their plans to borrow $1.8 million for a first phase of enhancements to the theater.
City Council member George Borzyskowski once criticized the city’s spending on the Masonic Temple, calling the building “a money pit” and arguing the city should not spend so heavily on an arts center. However, last week, he said he has come around to the idea. “It can be a very vibrant building,” he stated. As for the senior center, it has long outgrown its space, he said. “Our senior center, thanks to Malia [Fox] and her staff, we’ve gone to the next level,” Borzyskowski said.
Normally, Minnesota cities have to seek voter approval through a referendum to borrow money. However, city staff and advisors presented the City Council with two options to finance these projects without voter approval. First, the city’s Port Authority could expand its industrial districts to include the ERC. The Port Authority has the power to borrow money for projects in industrial districts without voter approval. Second, the City Council could use a type of loan called an abatement bond. To do that, the city has to identify properties that would benefit from the projects, and the value of those properties has to be equal to the project cost. For instance, in 2017, the council used abatement bonds to fund $5-million projects at Levee Park, the Masonic Temple, and various parks. The council declared that local hotels, banks, and stores worth a combined $5 million would benefit from park upgrades. Although certain properties are declared beneficiaries, all property owners in the city pay taxes to repay abatement bonds. Whether the council uses abatement bonds or the Port Authority does not make much difference; it is up to the council’s preference, financial advisor Terri Heaton stated.
City officials have yet to answer many questions about how a combined Friendship Center and ERC would work and how it would affect the ERC, the city’s last remaining, free, drop-in recreation center. The ERC is open to all ages, but is especially popular with youth. “Nowadays, it’s very hard for kids to find something to do,” one father said, describing the valuable role the ERC plays in his son’s life. Some ERC users expressed concern about the proposed merger.
“I think it does need to be looked at … how is it implemented, to make sure that we’re serving all of these populations well and making sure that they feel comfortable and welcomed,” ERC Coordinator Lydia Boysen said in an interview earlier this year.
After the proposed expansion, the community center would be smaller than the current ERC and the current Friendship Center’s combined. The plan is dependent on the two user groups sharing space. Winona Park and Recreation Community Services Director Chad Ubl and Friendship Center Director Malia Fox note that — during the school year — the ERC and the Friendship Center are generally busy at opposite times of day: after school and in the morning, respectively.
On Wednesday, Ubl said that a proposed new workout facility at the community center would be restricted to seniors only. He noted that some of the workout equipment is specially designed for older adults. Fox said Friendship Center members want to workout with other older adults. “I am comfortable working out with my peers, I do not want to work out with spandex-ed Barbie and Ken,” she said, relaying their comments.
As for other Friendship Center programs — Tai Chi, yoga, cards, and dozens more that are currently for seniors only — Fox said that the city has not determined whether they would be age-restricted in the new community center. That decision would be up to Ubl and other city leaders, she said, but Fox envisioned those programs being open to children and adults of all ages. “There’s a ukulele group right now [at the Friendship Center],” Fox said. “They’d love to have youth come in with ukuleles and play with them.”
The Friendship Center currently requires a $30-per-year membership. The ERC requires no memberships; it is designed as a drop-in center that anyone can come to at any time it is open. “I do believe that we will be going down the road of memberships,” Fox said, when asked if the new community center would require memberships. “However, just as it is at the Friendship Center, if you don’t have the means to purchase a membership, we find you the money. So there will be scholarships.”
City Council member Eileen Moeller said she was in favor of relocating the Friendship Center but wanted to hear more from families that frequent the ERC. “I want to understand from them what they feel about a change like this and what the impact to their usage would be,” she stated.