Photo by Sarah Elmquist
The halls of the old Middle School echo with over 70 years of childhood memories. Half of the complex has been converted to apartment space by the buildings owners, Metro Plains. The other half, housing a 1,300 seat auditorium, pool, gym and locker rooms, remains empty. The boys™ locker room (pictured) last saw atheletes in 2000, and is still home to a handful of sneakers and gym clothes.

Auditorium. Opportunity?


by Sarah Squires

It could preserve history; it could create a home for Winona art and culture, feature revolving gallery exhibits and a rooftop master garden. It could, in theory, give Winonans a place to rock, a place to sing, a place to dance, play and read.

A plan commissioned by the Winona Public Library says all it'll take is around $20 million.

Architectural plans from 2004 detailing how the Winona Public Library could be linked through a skyway to the old Middle School building, remodeling and repairing the 80-year-old auditorium, have been on the back burner.

But the city's first draft of a comprehensive plan for the future of Winona calls for many of the things such a library and cultural center could offer. That, coupled with a recent WSU survey which indicated that the majority of Winona's residents want the city to promote more live music and support a public and privately-funded event center, has given the expensive plans a bit of fresh air.

It's the money, though.

Winona Mayor Jerry Miller said that the project is just simply too expensive. "I think the price tag is way out of what we can afford," he said. "I mean, I can't even afford Louisa Street here. We've got a lot of infrastructure needs."

Miller said the plans were nice, but he just couldn't see where the money would come from.

Council member Debbie White, who is also a member of the city's Downtown Revitalization Committee and the Fine Arts Commission, said that she would love to see the project funded, somehow. She said that part of the issue requires people to really become informed about how the arts contribute to more than just entertainment and education. She said that studies have shown over and over that arts bring in tourism, business the and real dollars. Enhancing Winona's art, culture and music scene, she said, would be "being more creative and innovative with a business sense."

But, she said, the project is really, really expensive. "Realistically, it's going to be tough," she said.

Both White and Miller agreed on one thing: that the library has some needs for expansion. Miller said that the city has been taking a tentative look at the Senior Friendship Center building, which also houses the Masonic Temple, is city-owned, and only a block away.

"I think there are a lot of good ideas being generated," said White, adding that the city has to be realistic, as well. "I truly hope that something will happen, soonish." White said that her fear in aiming too high with the project is that nothing would happen.

The plans

Library Director Jim Stetina spearheaded the architectural plans after gathering ideas and input in 2003. A friend from HSR & Associates of La Crosse donated the architectural time and plans. Now all that's left is the $20 million.

"These plans were not written in stone," said Stetina, who also plans to continue to work on the idea, drum up support and look for grant money and donations.

"It would make a really nice centerpiece for the city," he said. "It could address not just the library's needs, but also the arts community's needs."

The plans detail a two-story skyway from the library to the auditorium end of the old Middle School building, which now houses 68 apartments on the other end of the structure, owned by Metro Plains of the Twin Cities.

The plans would add 15,700 square feet of new library space for things like more books, a coffee shop (linked to the drive-thru book drop-off under the skyway), a gallery and a Winona history room.

On the Middle School side, the auditorium would be repaired and made handicap accessible. There would be three floors of new space for things like a smaller "black box" theater, electronic cafe, snack shop, conference and seminar spaces, theater workshop room, and studios for visual arts, painting, metals and wood. The west end of the building could feature a new, large entrance, and the library could open up its original doors along Fifth Street.

Stetina said that there was also the idea that the roof of the Middle School could house a glass-enclosed greenhouse garden of sorts, where people could see all the way to the river, master gardeners could do their work and hold workshops, and students could learn about botany.

"I think it has some great possibilities," said Stetina.

But he can't do it alone. White said the only way such a project could be funded would be through a combination of sources, and Stetina said that there is potential for grant money and other types of funding.

Stetina said that, in the 1980s, Winona voters chose not to relocate the library along the river. "They didn't want to abandon this building," he said of the 108-year-old structure, "and I don't want to either."

For now, the Middle School auditorium area sits empty, little beams of light leaking through the windows of the theater. Water damage has warped the floor of the old basketball court, puckering the wood that would host the largest gallery in the plans. Old gym shoes still clutter the locker rooms, abandoned years ago.

But the vision of what could be there has not died. "All that [ideas from different groups] has been moving together," said White. "I think the timing is so good. We've got all this wonderful input, yet we have to be somewhat realistic."

Miller echoed the thought. "It's good to think outside the box, but you have to be realistic, too," he said. But, "you never know what can happen."

Smaller plans

The possibility of just renovating the auditorium space and getting it up to code has also been discussed. Bernadette Mahfood, a member of the old committee which worked on the plans, said that such a project was estimated to cost around $5 million.

She said that, at first, the committee felt that there was a possibility of putting on some big fund-raising projects to get the ball rolling. But, as plans and costs developed, the group decided to put the ideas on hold and wait to see what the city's comprehensive plan might hold for the future.

The comprehensive plans are expected to be completed and presented to the City Council later this month. Mahfood said that many of the people involved with the auditorium committee have also been involved with the work done on the comprehensive plan, as well.

"It's a huge project," said Mahfood. "There are still people who would like to see it become a theater. I'm not sure where that fits in anymore. It's really been on hold; truly."


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