At Sunday’s celebration in Levee Park, Waylon Pelowski (center left) and Chip Pellowski (center right) could not get enough of the new fountains. The Winona-based band The Heavy Set (background) kicked off a day full of music on the river.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Hundreds of Winonans and visitors gathered on Sunday for the “Grand Re-opening of Levee Park” after the city’s $2.8-million redesign of the park. Food trucks, beer sellers, craft vendors, and giant-bubble-blowing stations packed the newly built Main Street plaza, while children played in the park’s new water fountains until they were soaked. Scores of friends and families set up lawn chairs on the new raised lawn to watch bands play free concerts all afternoon and evening with the Mississippi River in the background.
Ever since the levee was built, both protecting and dividing downtown Winona from the Mississippi, Winonans have been dreaming of redesigning Levee Park. After decades of plans without action, a pledge to revamp the park was central to Mayor Mark Peterson’s inaugural election campaign in 2012. On Sunday, Peterson cut the ribbon on the first major project to deliver on that pledge and one of the city’s largest investments in revitalizing downtown. “I think today we are reclaiming [Levee Park] as our gateway to the riverfront and our front door to the city,” Peterson said.
“They’ve done a fabulous job,” Winonan Anne Plummer said of the park project. She praised the raised lawn for creating new river views and a spacious setting for outdoor events. “There used to be competition for river views, and now everyone can enjoy the river,” Plummer stated. “Now you can sit on the grass, and enjoy the music in a comfortable location. There’s room to dance,” she added.
Before this project, the Main Street entrance to Levee Park looked like a dead end. “You saw nothing but bushes and barricades and a small, two-foot-wide sidewalk leading to a park with nothing in it,” former Levee Park Committee Chair Frank Pomeroy said. Now, a large gateway at Second and Main streets declares the entrance to the park. The landscaped Main Street plaza and the drastically widened railroad crossing at the end of Main Street are intended to encourage foot traffic between the riverfront park and Winona’s downtown business district.
The money the city put into Levee Park is generating more private investment in downtown, Pomeroy stated. The Levee Park project, the soon-to-completed Winona bridge project with its bike trail connections to Wisconsin, and Fastenal’s planned downtown office are going to remake Winona’s riverfront, he continued. “This would have never been done without the courage of the mayor, the city manager, and the City Council,” Pomeroy added.
When City Council members approved the “Levee Park + Main Street Gateway” project, they hoped it would spur downtown development generally, but they especially hoped it would attract developers to the 60 Main Street project — the city’s bid to redevelop the city-owned parking lot near the movie theater. Minneapolis developer George Sherman of Sherman Associates proposed a large apartment and hotel complex that would tie into the Main Street plaza, but negotiations between Sherman and city staff have taken a longer than expected. “We’re hoping to hear back from him to see what the next step will be, but I can guarantee you we’ll send him drone footage from Sunday’s event,” Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi said, referring to drones that captured shots of the crowd on Sunday.
City officials are still waiting to receive a final price tag for the Levee Park project. It was estimated to cost $2.4 million when the City Council approved borrowing money for it and other projects in early 2017. Wapasha Construction won the contract with a low bid of $2.8 million last year, but there have been various changes since then, including donations from local companies.
There was a down-to-the-wire push to get the finishing touches completed in time for Sunday’s event, with some work still going on last Friday. The new fountains were set to run continuously on Sunday, but once city contractors get the system working properly, the fountains will be activated by a button visitors can press, according to city staff.
Several park visitors were wowed by the stained glass Willet Hauser Architectural Glass donated and built into the park gateway. Winona Park and Recreation Community Services Director Chad Ubl said he has gotten mixed comments about the teal, pink, and blue accents near the top of the gateway. Because it is not what the city wanted either, they will be replaced, Ubl said.
Now that Winona has built nice, new things in Levee Park, it will be up to the city and the community to take care of it and use it. “I think if people see the event today, they’ll say, ‘Now, wait a minute. We could host our event here,’” Ubl said. Visit Winona won a $50,000 grant from the state tourism agency Explore Minnesota to help fund Sunday’s festivities. The city has plans to continue to the Live at the Levee concert series, but concerts and events require ongoing funding. “We hope that people and organizations will take advantage that it’s there,” Sarvi said of the new park amenities. “We obviously can’t afford to do Live at the Levee [concerts] every week or even every month, but we always hoped and planned that other groups can use the space.”
In the past, Ubl has told the City Council that between the new landscaping from the Levee Park project and the city’s desires to spruce up downtown generally, the park maintenance department will likely need one new full-time position. On Sunday, Ubl said that funding for that position will be part of his 2019 budget request.
Ubl took a moment on Sunday to talk about citizens’ responsibility to look after the park, too. He recalled visiting the park on Friday with his family: “We’re leaving the park. My youngest daughter says to me, ‘Dad, did you see that guy walk right through the flowers?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I did see him.’ Unfortunately, we’re kind of used to that … But it made me think that my hope for this space is that that’s not the norm.” He added, “We need to respect this space because it belongs to all of us. It belongs to you.”