by CHRIS ROGERS
The pool, Lake Lodge, youth sports, most adult sports —there are all closed or canceled. City-sponsored concerts were scrapped as were many of the big events that rent out parks and park facilities. Most of Winona’s recreation programs have been shuttered by the pandemic. So what have the more than seven full-time staff members in that office been doing this summer?
Mostly, they have been planning for the future, department head Chad Ubl said. The Winona Park and Recreation Department is preparing for a laundry list of projects: the proposed Community Center combining the Friendship Center and East Recreation Center (ERC), more Levee Park improvements, Prairie Island Campground upgrades, the Riverfront Bike Path, the Bluffs Traverse, the Lake Park Every Child’s Dream playground, a new Arts and Cultural Plan, Historic Masonic Temple Theatre repairs underway now and an HVAC replacement and sound system upgrade planned for next year — just to name a few. “We went from park rec.’s traditional programming to having a lot of projects that were either in the hopper or we took advantage of the facilities having a limited number of people or no people to do projects,” Ubl said.
Readers’ questions prompted the Winona Post’s inquiry. “I get it. A valid question,” Ubl stated. Including the Friendship Center and excluding the library, the salaries and benefits for year-round Park and Recreation Department staff total nearly $740,000.
Ubl’s department reassigned some of its staff to help other city departments, it didn’t fill one coordinator position, and most notably it didn’t hire any of the seasonal workers that normally rent out boats at Lake Lodge, play with children at the ERC, or serve as lifeguards at the pool. The city spent over $300,000 on seasonal park staff in 2018.
Several Park and Recreation Department divisions have been pressing on through the pandemic. The Friendship Center is offering virtual programming and continuing its Senior Advocacy Program as well as participating in planning a future community center. The Winona Public Library is bundling books for curbside pick up and spending extra staff time processing pick-up requests and disinfecting or quarantining returned materials. Adult league softball is back on.
Figuring out how and whether park rec. programs and facilities could be reopened, rescheduled, or redesigned also was a significant endeavor. “Really early on in the pandemic and really in that March time frame, staff spent a significant amount of time planning as if we were going to have regular programming this summer,” Ubl stated. “It wasn’t until really late spring or early summer that their jobs, in a sense changed focus,” he added.
At the Bob Welch Aquatic Center, for instance, Ubl’s staff spent weeks weighing whether the pool should reopen and how it could. Earlier in the year, there was uncertainty about just how long social-distancing rules would have to be in effect, and with some Winonans eager to get back to normal, the department faced some criticism for being too slow to reopen. On the other hand, many Winonans have supported the city’s safety-first approach. Ultimately, park rec. staff drew up detailed plans for multiple ways the pool could reopen: an option for swim lessons and swim clubs only or an option for public swimming, with the exact number of people who could be allowed in at once under state rules, the extra staff that would be needed to monitor social distancing in the pool and to turn excess patrons away at the gate. After thanking staff for their work to understand the details of all options before making a difficult decision, the City Council voted to keep the pool closed.
Ubl and city manager Steve Sarvi said the city’s arts and cultural coordinator has been working on drafting the city’s new Arts and Cultural Plan — an update to that section of the city’s 2007 comprehensive plan — and coordinating plans for HVAC and sound upgrades at the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre proposed for next year.
Meanwhile, since Winonans’ other options for getting out of the house have shrunk considerably, the city’s parks themselves are busier than ever. That means the park maintenance crew is very busy and office staff are fielding lots of calls from citizens reporting minor problems at the park, from portapotties that didn’t get cleaned to trees down across hiking trails, Ubl said. “There are literally hundreds of calls that come in,” he stated. “This summer specifically … we have never seen this type of park use and attendance at our parks, at least in my 25-year history with our department.”
Is there enough work to keep park rec. staff busy? “One-hundred percent,” Ubl responded.