This conceptual drawing shows Bay State Milling’s proposal for the company’s new Winona warehouse, seen from Levee Park. Image from Bay State Milling.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Bay State Milling executives said last week that demolishing the former Godfather’s Pizza and Park Brewing Company buildings just east of Levee Park and constructing a new warehouse there is key to keeping their 120-year-old business competitive. Using the former brewery for warehousing is not feasible, company officials said, but they pledged to make a new warehouse fit in with Levee Park and Winona’s historic downtown. Now Winona city leaders will face decisions. Earlier this month, the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) proposed making the brewery building a local historic site. If the City Council endorses that proposal, it would block Bay State Milling from razing the building without city approval.
Additionally, the city zoned the former pizza place as a downtown commercial property in hopes it would remain a restaurant. Bay State Milling’s plans to use the former Godfather’s site for heavy industry would require the City Council to change the city’s comprehensive plan and rezone the site.
“Our history is linked indelibly to Winona,” Bay State Milling Vice Chairman Brian Rothwell said. Rothwell’s great-grandfather, an Irish immigrant who got his start as a laborer in Boston’s harbors and rail terminals, founded Bay State Milling in Winona in 1899. The Winona plant remains Bay State Milling’s largest mill, producing hundreds of tons of flour every year and employing over 100 people. “We want to essentially extend that history by being a link between Winona’s great history on the one hand and its industrial heritage on the other,” Rothwell stated.
In an interview last week, Rothwell, Bay State Milling CEO Pete Levangie, and Winona Plant Manager Al Simanovski said that making the Winona mill more efficient is crucial to maintaining the company’s competitiveness. “Increasingly, as we look across the industry, we see fewer companies like Bay State Milling,” Levangie said. Competitors like Cargill and ADM get bigger and bigger, and family-owned businesses like Bay State Milling are increasingly rare, he explained. Currently, the Winona plant’s production flows east to west, and its finished product is loaded on semis and hauled across town to Watkins’ warehouse on West Third Street. “When you look at making an operation lean, you can’t move a product twice and expect to be efficient,” Simanovski stated. Instead of hauling its flour to be stored off site, Bay State Milling officials want to construct new warehousing space on the west end of the mill property so that finished flour will flow easily from the end of the production line into storage. The men said they considered buying property to the east of Bay State Milling and siting the new warehouse there, but the price of land was too high and the cost of changing the direction of their production lines — in order to flow from west to east toward an eastern warehouse — was not feasible. “It’s a tremendous benefit to be able to do it on the west side versus the east side,” Simanovski explained.
Bay State Milling leaders said they also engaged a structural engineer to determine whether the former brewery building could meet their warehousing needs. It does not, Simanovski said. For starters, the building’s foundation and structural beams have water damage and sections of concrete are crumbling, he stated. Furthermore, Bay State Milling needs a very large warehouse with 30-foot-tall ceilings and very strong floors — tall enough to stack five huge containers full of flour on top of each other and strong enough to support the 12,000-pound stacks, Simanovski explained. The floors of the old brewery are too short and too weak, he stated. “Unfortunately, really our best option is to raze the building and start over,” Simanovski said.
Creating on-site storage would also eliminate the need to send semi-trucks across downtown Second Street to shuttle flour to storage. That would eliminate 80-100 truck trips per day, Simanovski said.
Levangie described the project to streamline Bay State Milling’s production as “critical.” He added that the warehouse project is a big investment for the company, one it might not make so easily if it were not for an innovative new product line Levangie believes will help Bay State Milling compete — a high-fiber, non-genetically-modified wheat varietal called HealthSense. According to the Mayo Clinic, dietary fiber helps people feel fuller and minimize hunger while stabilizing blood sugar for people with diabetes.
Bay State Milling officials said they recently met with every Winona City Council member and members of the city’s Planning Commission — who will make a recommendation on the HPC’s proposal and would make recommendations on any future zoning or comprehensive plan changes — to discuss their plans for the site. Several council members confirmed that company representatives met with them individually. The Minnesota Open Meeting Law requires majorities of government bodies to discuss public business at public meetings.
“We heard, ‘You know what? Winona’s history is really important,’ and, ‘You know what? We can’t have an eyesore for Levee Park,’” Simanovski said of the feedback Bay State Milling received from city officials. “We think those are things we can incorporate into a new structure. We can’t have the old one, but we could do something that will be pleasing for Winona,” he added. Based on that input, company leaders said they are proposing that the facade of the new warehouse facing Levee Park would resemble a downtown storefront, with second-story windows, an awning, and in place of storefront windows, a series of interpretative “storyboards” describing the history of Bay State Milling and Winona. “I think we can do this in a way — and we’re committed to do it in a way — that’s a win-win,” Levangie stated.
“One of the things that’s really important for Bay State Milling is to remain a good neighbor,” Simanovski said. “We’ve been around for 120 years and we want to be around for 120 more.”
“Bay State is a really important business in Winona. They have needs. We need to try to help them with those needs,” Mayor Mark Peterson said in an interview. “I would also say that I’ve admired this old brewery building for a long time as a building that I found very interesting and hoped someday that it would have a greater use than what it’s currently being used for. That’s not likely to happen because Bay State wants to continue owning the building, and they now seem quite determined to demolish the building.” Ideally, Peterson said he would like to see the building saved and Bay State Milling’s warehousing needs met. That seems unlikely, he acknowledged, but said he wanted Bay State Milling to convince him why it was not possible. “Explain to me why this building can’t be used, can’t be made to work for their warehouse,” he stated.
Asked what is so special about the former brewery, Peterson highlighted its position on the edge of Levee Park and Winona’s historic downtown. Then there’s the building’s history, he added. “It’s a big part of our heritage, and I’m a big supporter of saving our heritage. I don’t think every building should be saved either … but this happens to be one that if we possibly can, we should,” he stated.
“I’m excited to see that the company is interested in expanding their business downtown here, consolidating their warehousing, trying to invest in their infrastructure downtown, and they’re willing to make some accommodations to fit in with the historic and architectural landscape downtown,” City Council member Paul Schollmeier said in an interview. “At this point, I’m not sure if I would favor it or oppose it, but I think they have a pretty good plan and I appreciate that they’ve been forthcoming.” Schollmeier continued, “If it’s true — if they can consolidate, they can eliminate 80-100 trucks coming through town a day, that would certainly be welcome in the downtown.” He added that the city needs to go through the process for deciding whether to name the property a local historic site that the HPC initiated. He added, “Sometimes buildings are worth saving, and sometimes they’re not. I’d be the first to admit that not every historic building has enough value and import to keep it.”
City Council member George Borzyskowski said Bay State Milling’s proposal made sense. He said that the company’s truck loading operations at Watkins’ warehouse have caused congestion that has been a concern for some neighbors and nearby businesses. “If they can build their warehouse at their current property, it would certainly take care of that problem,” he stated.
Rothwell recalled a fire that destroyed part of the Winona mill in the early 1900s. At the time, Bay State Milling’s leaders had an option to relocate the company to Minneapolis, Duluth, or Buffalo, N.Y., he said. “After some great consideration, [the general manager] and my great-grandfather said, ‘No, we’re not going to take the money and run. We’re going to rebuild here,’” Rothwell stated. “And in a sense, that’s what we’re doing here,” he added of the warehouse expansion project.
The Winona Planning Commission is expected to discuss the HPC’s proposal soon. After receiving recommendations from the Planning Commission and the Minnesota State Historical Preservation Office, the HPC will hold a public hearing and vote a second time on whether to send its proposal to the City Council or cancel it. If the HPC votes to send it on, the City Council will hold a second public hearing before voting on whether to make the former brewery a local historic site.
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