Pre-design: why tell us so late in the game


by Sarah Squires

The group that's met for over a year to plan for a Shakespeare Theater and Conference Center downtown met Monday night, learning more about how planning for such a facility will begin anew with a broader scope.

Now the city will look into a building that could house a sports arena as well, moving the facility from the downtown area and closer to Winona State's campus, which would operate and maintain the estimated $25 million to $30 million building.

City staff, committee members and the public learned of the new plans Friday, just as the Shakespeare Predesign Committee had received architectural proposals for the old theater plans. City Administrator Eric Sorensen sent an e-mail notification to the group Friday morning, but some didn't learn of the changes until reading the weekend newspaper.

Some committee members were clearly disappointed that they'd been left to work on the old plans while Mayor Jerry Miller and a group of local business people looked into the new sports option. Miller said Friday that he'd been working with the other group for over six months.

Judge and committee member Margaret Shaw Johnson asked why there was a secret effort going on that was adverse to the committee, which was, she added, appointed by the mayor himself. Sorensen said that was a question he couldn't answer.

"I wish they'd come to us," said Johnson. "It's unfortunate," she added, saying that it was obvious that if the group of private business people wanted to contribute to plans, that the committee would have welcomed it.

Johnson asked if representatives from the Great River Shakespeare Festival, the Beethoven Festival and the Frozen River Film Festival had been privy to the new, behind-the scenes-plans.

"That I can't tell you," said Sorensen.

Other concerns centered around whether such a combination facility would actually be able to suit the arts needs for theater and orchestral space, and how that might work. City staff pointed to a facility at Northern Illinois University which serves as a sports area and convocation center, housing musical and theatrical events.

Sorensen said the new facility would have 4,000 seats, as opposed to Memorial Hall's current 1,200-seat capacity (2,000 can fit standing.) The new facility, he said, could include acoustics that would work for theater and orchestral needs, and could feature adaptable space that could be rearranged for different functions.

Sorensen also referenced a feasibility study for the sports/theater concept, paid for privately by the business group. He said that he's heard that such a facility would be able to meet all the different needs at the table, but said that city staff, the committee, the City Council and the public have not viewed the study.

Committee member Kathy Peterson said that she wanted confirmation from a professional that all of the needs could be met with one facility, from theater to orchestra to sports.

Johnson asked if that confirmation was something the city ought to know before it asked the state Legislature to change the wording on the $250,000 grant to study the project. The City Council unanimously approved lobbying the Legislature for the broader language Monday night.

Committee member and retired Judge Dennis Challeen said that it didn't matter and that the money and power behind the sports effort would trump whatever plans there had been before. "They win," he said. "We have to sit back and see if it develops."

"They have the money," agreed Sorensen. He added that the private backers of the sports theater combo facility had their interest in the community as a whole. Although, he said, initially the interest was in the sports end of the deal, that interest had grown to include all of the arts efforts in the original plans.

"This committee doesn't have any power to fight that," said Challeen.

Sorensen said that the new scope of the project was not a fight, and encouraged current committee members to stay involved to ensure that the arts played a significant role in the new plans. He said that the mayor would appoint a new committee but that he hoped those at the table would still be interested in collaborating.

Peterson said that it has been encouraging to see the momentum growing in Winona to become an arts destination, and that artists have been willing to invest and grow here. "[With] this new proposal, my fear is that I don't want it taking away that momentum." She said that she understood that Miller was enthusiastic about the potential for private donors with the new plans, but wanted reassurance that those driving the new arena plans were also interested in the fine arts.

Johnson also said that it seemed as though the new facility would not work in the downtown area and that it would likely be closer to WSU, adding that she had felt revitalizing downtown was a major component for the old plans. Sorensen has said that the old sites examined "” the old Middle School Auditorium, the Tri-Mac area and the Winona 7 block -- won't work with the arena proposal.

But Sorensen said that a facility to house sports and the arts would draw visitors and that draw would spur on development downtown. "A lot more energy will extend down to the river," he said, and added that there were still plenty of related facilities, like hotels and restaurants, that could liven up the riverfront and downtown. He said a shuttle bus could be looked at to bring people from the arena facility to those downtown destinations.

"That'll be their downfall," said Community Development Director Judy Bodway. "There needs to be a hotel attached."

Sorensen said that the Legislature will likely approve the broader language for the $250,000 study grant, and that the new more multipurpose facility would likely be favored for more state financial support as well. The city will likely ask the state for funding for final architectural drawings and engineering plans in 2009, then re-approach the Legislature for construction funding in 2010. Sorensen has said the city would hope to receive half of the construction costs from the state and then fundraise and bond for the rest. The city would then contract with WSU to operate and maintain the facility, with the university receiving the facility profits.


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