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Kylen Lor helped break ground for St. Martin’s Lutheran School’s new facility this spring.

2019: Year of growth, opportunity


(1/2/2020)

Fastenal released conceptual designs for its new riverfront office this fall.
Fastenal released conceptual designs for its new riverfront office this fall.


Mid West Music Fest celebrated 10 years in Winona.
Mid West Music Fest celebrated 10 years in Winona.


Eight women graduated from the Winona General Hospital Training School for Nurses in 1929; this year marked Winona Health’s 125th anniversary.
Eight women graduated from the Winona General Hospital Training School for Nurses in 1929; this year marked Winona Health’s 125th anniversary.


Saint Mary’s University grad Brother James Miller was beatified last month.
Saint Mary’s University grad Brother James Miller was beatified last month.


An undefeated Winhawk football team made it to the state semi-finals game before losing to Rocori in a heartbreaker.
An undefeated Winhawk football team made it to the state semi-finals game before losing to Rocori in a heartbreaker.


Y leaders broke ground on the new building in 2018, and in 2019 construction began.
Y leaders broke ground on the new building in 2018, and in 2019 construction began.


by SARAH SQUIRES

The year 2019 marked some big changes for the Winona region, from major economic growth and the unveiling of projects to spur the area into the coming years, to celebrations, triumphs, surprises and more.

As the Winona community celebrates the New Year, the Winona Post has compiled some of the most significant hallmarks of 2019, and some exciting things we learned in 2019 that are just ahead for the Winona area.

Winona region celebrates

Winona Health in 2019 celebrated its 125th birthday, marking 125 years of serving the Winona region. First started by a group of 16 Winonans who raised money to renovate the former Langley Home at Winona and Sanborn streets, today Winona Health’s large campus offers cutting-edge health care technology. A staple of the community, the health care center is a hub of community activity and offerings, and has partnered with the Winona Family YMCA on its new campus nearby to offer even more. Winona Mayor Mark Peterson christened February 28 as “Winona Health Day,” declaring in 2019: “Winona would not be the same without this innovative and independent, community-owned health care organization.”

Its birthday was not the only thing Winona Health had to celebrate. For the third year in a row, in 2019, Winona Health was named one of the top 100 rural and community hospitals in the U.S. by the Chartis Center for Rural Health, one of the biggest accolades that can be bestowed upon such an organization. The award is based on a rigorous, independent analysis of things such as patient safety, cost, patient perspective, and positive health outcomes.

In 2019, Winona County marked a new chapter: for the first time ever, a majority of the elected County Board was comprised of women, when new board member Chris Meyer joined commissioners Marcia Ward and Marie Kovecsi. “It’s representative of our times,” said Ward of the new majority. “It’s a good thing, because women do represent at least a half, maybe more of the electorate.”

Thousands of residents had cause to cheer in 2019, as the Winona Senior High School Winhawk football team for the third time in four years headed to state. The undefeated team rallied at U.S. Bank Stadium to compete in the MSHSL Class AAAA semi-finals after an incredible season of wins. The fifth-ranked team, riding a wave of victories, fell to the unranked Rocori Spartans in a 48-24 heartbreaker. “It’s been an amazing ride with these guys,” said Winhawks coach John Cassellius. “This has been our fourth game playing at [the stadium] in four years. It’s just a great group of kids who have worked extremely hard. They’ve made sacrifices for each other. We talk about family quite a bit, and it’s true.”

Winona Mayor Mark Peterson celebrated a bittersweet hallmark in 2019: retiring as longtime Winona County Historical Society director after 36 years at the helm. During his tenure, Peterson led a new chapter in the center’s history, transforming the historical society from quiet organization to a center bustling with activity and programming. He lobbied for the historic preservation of things like the Winona County Courthouse and pushed to create the city’s historic preservation ordinance that has helped protect other historic Winona icons, and in the 2000s, he oversaw the big expansion project that added an award-winning addition onto the historic armory building. The city leader and history buff reflected on his career when he retired in May 2019: “[History] gives me a sense of knowing why we are doing what we’re doing now and how we got to this point,” he said. “I think you need to understand your history to understand your present.”

Winona Health wasn’t the only organization in Winona to celebrate a milestone birthday. One of the area’s first big music festivals, Mid West Music Fest (MWMF), celebrated its 10th festival — since its inception in 2009, the music festival has grown in every way possible. Now boasting more bands and bigger acts, MWMF includes plenty of new offerings, including workshops for musicians and fans, and lots of opportunities for residents and area schoolchildren to participate. Now, the festival spans two locations — including La Crosse, Wis. — and spreads its offerings over two weekends. MWMF 2020 will be held on May 1 and 2 in Winona, and September 11 and 12 in La Crosse. Check out more to be had in 2020 at midwestmusicfest.org.

One milestone celebrated in Winona in 2019 held meaning for people across the globe. De La Salle Christian Brother and Saint Mary’s University alumnus and teacher Blessed Brother James Miller was honored during a special beatification ceremony in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, a ceremony that drew Saint Mary’s leaders to the country to celebrate. Blessed Brother James was just 37 when he was shot and killed while fixing a wall near a school where he worked as a missionary in Huehuetenango — thought to have been killed because he’d worked with other brothers at the school to prevent their young students from being forced to join the military during a violent civil war there. Miller was the first De La Salle Christian Brother from the U.S. to be beatified — one step toward sainthood. “He loved working with the poor and the people on the margins, particularly young people,” recalled Brother Pat Conway, Saint Mary’s professor who had Miller as a teacher in high school.

Excitement in area education

Cotter Schools announced in April that it had received its biggest donation in 105 years: $15-$20 million from the Slaggie Family Foundation that will bring a renovated, state-of-the-art middle and high school building at Roger Bacon Hall. Additionally, the Hiawatha Education Foundation offered to increase its financial support for the school’s family tuition program, opening up opportunities for families across the region. The building project, dubbed “Vision 2020,” will include bringing residential students closer, constructing a cafeteria that is closer to the main campus, and renovating classrooms to expand space and technology, among other projects to enhance the learning environment for students. Parts of Roger Bacon Hall will be retained, including the famed overpass. “It’s an incredible opportunity for Cotter and all the students that attend here,” stated Cotter Vice Principal Mary Eileen Fitch.

In April, Winona Area Public Schools’ (WAPS) 2019 Teacher of the Year Theresa Pearson was named one of nine finalists for the Minnesota Teacher of the Year honors. The award is given based on a teacher’s ability to engage positively and “go beyond in service to students, families and the district.” Pearson was selected among 168 teachers across the state for the finalist spot. Pearson, an English teacher at Winona Senior High School, said, “This is a huge honor, considering all the fine talent that the Minnesota Teacher of the Year Program puts forth.” In November, W-K second-grade teacher Kristi Conway was named WAPS’ Teacher of the Year for 2020. After 30 years of teaching — 25 with WAPS — Conway said she felt the dedicated and hard-working teachers at WAPS share a special bond among one another and their students. “She has a heart for children, and eagerly approaches each day with a calm, joyful disposition,” said Lisa Kulzer, W-K kindergarten teacher who nominated Conway.

St. Martin’s Lutheran School took a huge step in 2019 — breaking ground on the first phase of its $4.8-million new elementary and early childhood facility. More than a decade in the making, the school is expected to be completed in 2020. Hope Lutheran, as in the current building, will rent classroom space in the new spot, but will have a devoted wing, along with a dedicated art room and shop space. The second phase will include the construction of a double-gymnasium and fellowship hall on the site of the current St. Martin’s building, connecting the new schoolhouse with the chapel. School leaders were particularly excited that the building will allow for more early childhood education, as it builds on the organization’s 153-year history.

WAPS welcomed a new superintendent to its helm last year: Annette Freiheit, who joined the district in July and has since been praised by board members and teachers for her collaborative approach to education. Having studied in Winona for both her undergraduate and graduate studies, she harkened her new role as a homecoming of sorts. “I’m excited about the future, and what it can bring — those hopes and dreams of what we can do, the successes we are going to see, and how we are going to make things even better,” she said.

WAPS wasn’t the only regional school district to welcome a new person to its top post. Cochrane-Fountain City Schools (C-FC) brought Michele Butler, a former high school principal from Arcadia, to its superintendent position. Butler, who also worked as a middle school principal in Arcadia and a business education teacher in Portage, Wis., said taking on a superintendent role means being able to connect with more students and teachers. “What I found as a principal and working with the superintendent is the superintendent can influence the whole environment of the school district. I’m excited to look at where we’re already at and go to a higher level of collaboration, student achievement, and grow closer to the community,” she said.

After more than seven years in the making, in 2019, Winona State University (WSU) opened the doors of Education Village — its new, state-of-the-art teacher training facility. The $33.2-million project is one of the largest expansions in WSU history, and includes a 128,000-square-foot facility that includes everything from STEM and robotics and makerspaces, to observation areas and an education museum. Education Village encompasses three buildings: Helble Hall, Wabasha Recreation Center, and the former Cathedral School. The village also houses WSU’s Children’s Center, which provides teachers-in-training the ability to work closely with younger students across the region in a facility specifically constructed for early education learning.

Minnesota State College Southeast (MSC Southeast) also unveiled its new CNC Precision Machine Tool Laboratory in 2019. It is the first phase of the college’s Advance Manufacturing Infrastructure Initiative, a partnership between MSC Southeast and more than a dozen manufacturing companies. It includes $600,000 in new equipment intended to help get younger students interested in mechanical careers like those found in the mecca of industrial engineering and manufacturing companies in the area.

In October, Main Square Montessori held its grand opening, part of the $25-million Main Square Community project in downtown Winona. The Montessori learning center is a nonprofit that will serve as an early learning center for children from toddler age through kindergarten, and is a partnership between the Hiawatha Education Foundation and Cotter Schools. The rest of the Main Square Community project, still under construction, will include apartments, offices, stores, a Winona Health clinic, and a bistro.

Changes in the region

In 2019, Winona said goodbye to its deer park after concerns that the captive deer there could contribute to the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD). The deer were culled this fall in order to be tested for CWD, a disease that has caused concern among hunters and others in recent years. It is an always-fatal brain disease that is spread among cervid animals through physical contact, body fluids, and carcasses. It is widespread in Central Wisconsin, an outbreak occurred in Preston, Minn., several years ago, and an infection was discovered at a Cedar Valley deer farm in 2017. Last year, more cases of wild deer with the infection were found in Winona County near Pickwick and Cedar Valley.

East End residents celebrated in 2019, as the long-anticipated Sobieski Park Pavilion was finally completed. The city demolished the old building in 2015, and the neighborhood watch group broke ground in late 2016. The city borrowed $250,000 for the project, and private donors added roughly $400,000. The council last January allocated another $68,500 to finish the structure, which can house up to 85 people inside its main meeting and dining room and around 25-30 in an outside, covered patio.

Winona’s Post Office has a new postmaster at its helm after former postmaster Sherri Jo Genkinger was suspended in 2018. Investigators found around 1,300 pieces of undelivered mail in her office along with a bag full of shredded greeting cards, according to federal prosecutors. Genkinger was charged with and pled guilty last summer to one count of destruction of mail by a U.S. Postal Service employee — a felony punishable by up to five years in prison — for destroying three postcards. Under a plea deal, a federal judge sentenced her to two years probation, 80 hours of community service, $5 in restitution, and a $100 fine. According to court filings, an investigation was prompted after a retired police officer became curious over undelivered mail and mailed an unredeemed lottery ticket to his brother inside a greeting card. When it did not arrive, an investigation found video of an individual matching Genkinger’s description redeeming the lottery ticket and driving away in her vehicle. She later admitted she was the individual on the video, according to prosecutors.

Those who cross the Mississippi River into Wisconsin found something new — and old — in 2019, as the historic Mississippi River bridge was reopened to traffic in July. The $150-million project was part of more than a decade-long effort that included a new bridge crossing the river span while the old bridge was fixed. The historic bridge was featured on the state’s sesquicentennial stamp, and is one of the last surviving bridges with a cantilevered through-truss design. Still, its price tag, $65 million, was more than the cost of the new bridge that will have a longer lifetime, and some objected to it being restored. At its grand reopening, Mayor Peterson said it was an example of how everyone can work together. “A bridge is a wonderful symbol of that spirit,” he said.

While many planned projects reshaped the landscape of Winona, perhaps the most dramatic was a tragedy that took just one minute: a devastating F1 tornado struck Woodlawn Cemetery on September 11. The 80-yard-wide twister ripped dozens of 100-year-old trees from the ground and tossed them down hillsides, gouging craters into the bluffside and toppling headstones. The 95-mph winds caused more than $150,000 in damage to the historic cemetery that was already struggling to fundraise for its upkeep. Those interested in donating to Woodlawn may mail checks to Woodlawn Cemetery, 506 West Lake Boulevard, Winona, Minn., 55987; or visit woodlawncemeterymn.com.

A look ahead

Along with St. Martin’s Lutheran School and Cotter’s new big building projects, several other major construction projects are underworks in Winona.

The Winona Family YMCA’s $22-million new facility is about one-third complete after years in the making. The building will bring new life to the YMCA, and will include partnerships with Winona Health, the Red Cross, and Live Well Winona. Construction is expected to be complete in October 2020. “I’m amazed by the progress that Market & Johnson has made in the last five months,” Winona Family YMCA CEO Janneke Sobeck said of the contractors. “It’s exciting to see our future rising out of the ground and taking shape, one day at a time.”

Another community center project hopped a hurdle in November, when the Winona City Council agreed to pursue a nearly $9-million plan to relocate the Friendship Center to the East Rec Center. The move would take the city’s senior center, currently housed at the Masonic Temple, and co-locate it at an expanded East Rec Center, which would provide more space and parking for senior programming there. Additionally, the city’s ongoing work on the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre has gained more support, with council members agreeing to expedite a new HVAC system for the building — another step in a long process to support a rigorous arts and event space in downtown Winona.

Fastenal recently unveiled designs for its new downtown offices, one of the most significant construction projects in recent history. Construction is expected to begin in April on the offices at Second and Washington streets that will be home to 400 employees, with room to expand to 600. Designs show a four-story, brick-and-stone building abutting Second Street with about a half-block of surface parking in the rear. Fastenal also purchased the current YMCA property, and plans to provide additional parking at that location once the YMCA moves to its new site near Winona Health. City leaders praised the new development plans and highlighted the ways it will impact downtown at a time when so many economic development pieces are coming together. “Anytime a business looks at a community to develop, expand, or invest in, they look at what’s already successful, what’s already thriving, what’s vibrant,” said Winona Area Chamber of Commerce President Christie Ransom.

New excitement in the Winona region isn’t limited to dry land. Winona is expected to house a new showboat to be moored at the old rail spur on Latsch Island, which will be able to accommodate large crowds such as weddings and theater events. The Minnesota Centennial Showboat was built by the University of Minnesota to replace another floating theater vessel that burned down, and the city of St. Paul purchased it before selling it to Winona nonprofit Minnesota Centennial Showboat, led by locals Bob Harris and Dave Belz. The boat is 175 feet from stern to stern and houses a 225-seat theater, ornamented decks, and faux smokestacks. The showboat was brought to Fountain City last summer, and organizers are raising funds to rehab it and bring it to Latsch Island.

 

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