Sarah Cain shopped with her son on Small Business Saturday in downtown Winona in 2018. City officials released a new long-term plan for the future of downtown last week.
by CHRIS ROGERS
What should the next 10 years in downtown Winona look like? The city of Winona released a draft Downtown Strategic Plan last week that attempts to set a vision for the next decade on everything from parking to balancing historic preservation and new development. The new plan’s many recommendations include increasing parking enforcement, cleaning up litter, improving financial aid for historic building restoration, enhancing the rest of Levee Park, and building a riverfront trail.
“There’s been certainly a lot of change in downtown over the last few years, and we think now is a time to take stock of what has happened and where we want to go in the future,” Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi stated.
The draft plan has been nearly a year and $30,000 in the making. The City Council hired consulting firm ISG last January to write the plan, under the direction of city staff. The new plan will replace the city’s 2007 Downtown Revitalization Plan, which was created by a citizen committee. Before drafting the new plan, ISG and city staff led a public open house and input meetings with downtown business owners and other stakeholders last spring.
Originally, the plan was scheduled to be finalized this summer. It has taken six months longer than expected. Sarvi said the plan’s release was delayed because city staff kept tweaking and improving early drafts. “It takes a lot of discipline to wait until it’s right rather than just get it out,” he stated.
Now the draft is out, and city staff plan to solicit public feedback later this month before eventually bringing it to the City Council for approval. The draft plan is available at www.cityofwinona.com.
“It says draft for a reason,” Sarvi said. “We really want the public’s unvarnished opinion of the plan because now is the time to make changes and consider other alternatives.”
Cleaning up downtown
“One of my wishes is that our city can clean up,” City Council and Port Authority Commission member George Borzskowski said last week.
Sprucing up downtown has long been a goal of city and business leaders, and over the years, Winona has organized many volunteer litter-collection crews that have fizzled out. Cleaning up downtown is one of the new draft plan’s major recommendations.
What is the strategy for achieving that goal? The plan recommends holding meetings to talk about it or potentially creating a new position whose job it would be to organize cleanups. “Meet with property owners, business owners, city staff, and residents to evaluate current policies, efforts, and resources for cleaning and beautification … Consider the viability of a public or private … position to assist in maintaining downtown cleanliness,” the draft advises. It also recommends “greening up” downtown by adding planters and trees.
More businesses, more hours
Diversifying the mix of businesses downtown — especially restaurants — and trying to get businesses to extend their hours have also been long-held goals for Winona. This new draft plan carries those aspirations forward. How can Winona achieve them? The draft plan suggests launching a “Late Night Downtown” event. Extending hours can be a chicken-or-the-egg problem. Customers don’t want to come downtown if businesses aren’t open; businesses don’t want to stay open if customers aren’t going to come. However, the Winona Main Street Program has had some success with its Third Thursday program, in which a group of businesses stay open late on coordinated and promoted dates — every third Thursday. Main Street Program Coordinator Ben Strand said some initial data from the events show increased traffic at participating businesses. “That’s kind of what Third Thursdays’ goal is — to show businesses there are benefits and a return on investment to staying open later,” he said.
During ISG’s public outreach effort last spring, citizens suggested creating more outdoor seating on downtown sidewalks and public spaces and allowing more food trucks downtown. The City Council has also recently asked to revisit the city’s food truck rules, but city staff have not yet placed the issue on a council agenda.
On parking, the plan echoes the findings of a 2018 parking study that concluded the city has sufficient parking, projected future parking needs don’t yet justify the multi-million-dollar expense of building a parking ramp, and the city should step up enforcement and rearrange parking limits to make the most of the existing spaces. “Consistency is important when it comes to parking enforcement. Parked cars in violation of posted parking rules and ordinance should be ticketed so expectations are on a level playing field,” the draft plan states.
The plan recommends encouraging shared-parking agreements (in which businesses lease parking spaces after hours), increasing parking fines (the City Council recently raised time-limit fines from $10 to $15), and encouraging downtown landlords to charge tenants for parking spaces. “Assuming that everyone has the need for parking a vehicle puts the cost burden on everyone instead of just those that drive,” the plan reads. “By working with developers and property managers to detach parking fees from residential and commercial rents, the system is more equitable and an incentive is added to reduce the demand for space dedicated to parking vehicles.”
The 2018 parking study also recommended that the city change its parking time limits to push long-term parking toward the fringes of downtown and provide more short-term parking in the core. The city has not made those changes.
New development and history
Downtown Winona has had some big development projects on vacant land, but there may not be much vacant land left for future development projects, Sarvi suggested. Referring to the Main Square, 60 Main, and Fastenal office projects, Sarvi stated, “While they were complex, they were fairly easy, as opposed to acquiring existing buildings and tearing them down — what may be the next phase in downtown development.”
Asked if that would require the city to balance new development and downtown’s historic character, Winona Economic Development Director Lucy McMartin said, “Absolutely.” Sarvi added, “I didn’t hear any argument to just knock the old buildings down and start over again. That is nowhere in [the plan] and certainly isn’t anything we would recommend. We treasure those old buildings, but that said, there are other opportunities downtown.”
From Bay State Milling’s new warehouse to the Winona County History Center’s new parking lot, some demolition and redevelopment projects have occurred throughout the years, but city leaders have largely turned away from the aggressive demolition and redevelopment efforts that defined the 1980s “urban renewal” period.
The draft plan itself does not address this issue in great detail, but generally advises balance. “Encourage redevelopment that achieves infill, respects the nature of downtown, and makes the highest and best use of limited land area,” the plan recommends. It adds, “Our historic downtown will continue to evolve as an even more beautiful and exciting place [to] live and work and celebrate new ideas in both historically preserved and dynamically modern settings.”
Unlike the 2007 Downtown Revitalization Plan, the new draft plan does not include recommendations for specific development projects. The old plan went into detail on what kind of new developments the city should promote and where, such as a mixed-use complex at the Hardee’s block — a goal that has now been achieved with the Main Square Community project.
The new plan includes a 2015 Opportunity Winona map outlining potential redevelopment sites, but without detailed recommendations.
McMartin and Sarvi highlighted that the new plan sets criteria for gauging what sort of projects the city should actively promote or financially assist. The criteria include whether projects would bring more people downtown, “serve unmet needs,” and meet the community’s environmental goals.
Help for historic storefronts
Winona should reconsider the financial assistance it provides for rehabilitating historic downtown facades, the new plan recommends. The city’s current program offers low-interest, partially forgivable loans to help downtown property owners fix up storefronts. However, some downtown property owners have complained the loans are too small and the strings attached to the federally funded program make it impractical and not that helpful. “Consider replacing the current funding sources with one that removes red tape, making the funding easier and more flexible to use,” the draft plan advises.
Parks and trails
The draft plan recommends that the city “implement completion of Levee Park” and develop the Riverfront Trail. After redesigning the west half of Levee Park, city leaders have said they hope to enhance the park’s eastern half in the near future. The draft downtown plan does not spell out what completing Levee Park would entail, but McMartin said it would involve removing spur railroad tracks near the park and improving river access.
The Riverfront Trail — a bicycle and walking path tracing the Mississippi River from Prairie Island to the East End — is another long-held dream for many Winonans. It has been stymied in the past by barge terminals’ and riverfront factories’ unwillingness to allow a leisure trail to cut through their industrial properties, but Port Authority Commission Chair Mike Cichanowski has been encouraging the city to pursue the idea once again. “I would doubt there are many downtown city plans in the country that don’t have a pretty significant bike path or bike route component to them,” Cichanowski told city staff last week.
In recent years, some Winonans have called for the city to create a downtown dog park. That idea is not reflected in the draft Downtown Strategic Plan.
Open house, public comment
The city will host an open house on January 21 from 4:30-5:30 p.m. in the council chambers on the third floor of city hall for citizens to share feedback on the draft plan. The draft plan and a feedback survey is available at www.cityofwinona.com under the header “Public Information.”
City committees are also reviewing the plan and sending comments to city staff. Sarvi said there is no set timeline for when the plan would be presented to the City Council for approval. “We really want the public to provide their input,” and the city may need to make changes to the draft plan based on that input, Sarvi explained.
“Winona’s downtown is going to look quite different by the time 2022 rolls around,” Strand commented, reflecting on all of the new activity happening. “I’m really excited about it, but there’s definitely still a lot of work to do,” he added.