by CHRIS ROGERS
The Winona City Council voted unanimously earlier this month to go ahead with a $1.8-million project to replace the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system at the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre. The new project would bring the city’s total investment in the theater up to over $4.1 million. City leaders have tentative plans to spend an additional $2 million turning the building into a top-notch arts and events center. Meanwhile, the council has yet to formally commit to funding a $5.4-million project to relocate the city senior center out of the Masonic and into an expanded East Recreation Center (ERC). City leaders have discussed funding all of these projects with debt, which taxpayers would repay over years.
“In order to start utilizing the building properly, I think it’s something that needs to be done,” Mayor Mark Peterson said of his support for the new HVAC system.
The system would provide air-conditioning to the upstairs theater for the first time ever — considered a must-have for any summertime programming — and it would replace an old system that recently broke down on the Masonic’s first floor, where the city’s senior center currently is located.
Peterson added of the city’s overall vision for the Masonic as an arts center, “I think if you’re going to own the building you need to maintain it and invest in it … I think when this project is done it’s going to be a great asset for the community. I think it’s going to be part of the downtown revitalization. I think it’s going to play a big part.”
“I was the biggest adversary for that building,” said council member George Borzyskowski, who once criticized the Masonic as a “money pit” before supporting continued investment. Now, he said, “They’re showing me the potential as to what we can do with that building. I’m seeing the potential.”
“We’ve spent so much money on the roof and the walls and all the other aspects of it, we’ve got to get the building into good shape so we can attract people to it … Otherwise it remains an underutilized building,” City Council member Pam Eyden stated.
“I think it’s the right thing to do,” City Council member Paul Schollmeier said. “We have a thriving arts and culture scene in our community, and I think, you know, the Masonic is destined to be the center of that.” He added, “I don’t think that any of us think it’s a moneymaker. I don’t think that’s the idea, but if we have people visiting our community because of arts and culture, moving to our city because of arts and culture, then for the city, I think it’s important for the city to make that investment to support those endeavors.”
The $1.8-million HVAC project is still subject to future City Council approval, but this month’s decision directs staff to hire engineers and seek construction bids.
What about the Friendship Center relocation?
Meanwhile, a separate but related project is still in the planning phase.
City officials have said there is not enough room in the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre for both the Friendship Center — the city senior center — and the kind of arts center city leaders envision. So, city staff proposed building a $5.4-million addition onto the ERC and relocating the Friendship Center there.
The City Council voted in November to tentatively support that idea and ask city staff to hire engineers to develop detailed designs and cost estimates. “Let’s get better details,” City Council member Al Thurley said at the time, referring to designs and cost estimates for construction. However, city staff have not yet brought back that engineering contract — estimated to cost $570,000 — for council approval.
Does the City Council’s vote to move ahead on the HVAC project mean the council is committed to the Friendship Center relocation, too? “I think what it does mean is that we’re committed to the theater portion for sure,” Peterson answered. “That final decision of what it’s going to be hasn’t been made yet, but certainly I think that’s the direction the council is headed in.”
The council approved the HVAC replacement ahead of making a decision on the Friendship Center relocation in part because City Council member Michelle Alexander argued that the new HVAC was needed regardless of what else happens. Peterson echoed that point in an interview. Asked if he was committed to funding the Friendship Center relocation, the mayor said, “Well, I’m getting there. Let’s put it that way. I think this is probably going to be the direction the council is going to go. But air-conditioning regardless — if the Friendship Center stays there, they’re going to benefit from having a new HVAC system. We’ll make that decision [on relocation] once we have all the information that we need. Until then, I’d say I’m definitely heading that direction because I think there’s a lot of benefits to having the Friendship Center in a different location.”
In an interview, Borzyskowski characterized the City Council’s November vote as a commitment to the relocation project while also suggesting that the site of the Friendship Center’s new home was still to be decided. Most city leaders have been clearly set on the ERC, even as citizens have repeatedly suggested other sites. “We voted to relocate it,” Borzyskowski said. “And then we’ll see once the numbers [come back] and once the location is chosen. Then, we find a way to pay for it.”
Eyden has been a vocal supporter of the Friendship Center relocation. “I think we definitely will see that project happen. What the timing is, I can’t say,” she told the Post.
“The senior population is growing, and the need is there,” Schollmeier stated. “I think this is an opportunity for us to address the needs of that growing population and find them space that’s needed and deserved.”