by Chris Rogers
Should the city develop a multimillion dollar Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) center in Levee Park? Should portions of Latsch Island be developed for a new boat landing? How grand — and expensive — should the plans for Winona's Levee Park be? Tuesday is the last call for input on the project before final conceptual designs are developed. Last week, in their first meeting since October, Levee Park Committee members were briefed on the new, abbreviated schedule for the project.
During a private meeting two weeks ago, Mayor Mark Peterson, committee chairs Frank Pomeroy and Eric Sorensen, and University of Minnesota (U of M) designers discussed amending the designers' soon-to-expire contract and agreed on the new schedule, which cuts the timeline for design development in half. Past plans called for multiple draft designs to be vetted at public committee meetings; under the new plan, the public will see specific design ideas for the first time after the final design is completed on January 30. The committee was not asked to approve the new plan, but was invited to comment on it.
The committee intends to host a forum in mid-February to introduce the plan to the public and give citizens a chance to weigh in on the final conceptual plan. Designers will be available to make any final revisions to the plan afterward, according to city staff.
Pomeroy and Peterson both said they were glad the committee will soon have a design to share with the community. "People want to see something," Pomeroy said. "I think there's a general feeling that we want this to get done, the sooner the better," Peterson explained when asked about the abbreviated schedule. Getting to the design phase is what "everyone is most excited about," the mayor said. When asked whether the new schedule would affect public input opportunities, Peterson said, "there's been considerable public input into this already and that will continue."
Public input and buy-in will be crucial to the project's success, said committee member and Winona County Planning and Environmental Services Director Jason Gilman. "You want the public to take ownership because they're going to have to support public funding," he said, noting that private funding may be part of the project, too. "Part of public engagement is also strategizing about funding and building advocacy and ownership," he continued.
Specifics at committee level
Over the course of its ten-month existence, the committee has not hashed out what, specifically, to do with the riverfront park. Constructing a FWS center next to the Boathouse Restaurant in the park, building docks for visiting boaters at Latsch Island or Frog Slough, and other specific ideas were discussed at a September meeting held without public notice, but apart from that the committee has spent little time debating concrete details. The bulk of the committee's discussions have focused on broad concepts like improving access to the park and creating a river-based identity for Winona.
Now, Pomeroy explained, the U of M designers will draw on public input gathered to date, discussions from past committee meetings, and final comments by committee members, as they begin developing the final conceptual plan. With that input, the designers are well-prepared "to give us a final product that should be fantastic," he said.
Past Levee Park committees have spent months discussing specific design ideas as a committee and debating draft designs before settling on final recommendations. On this project, designers will be tasked with weighing input and identifying which ideas to move forward, Peterson acknowledged.
Peterson sat in on last week's meeting, only the second full committee meeting he has attended since the group began work, the other being a public forum. The committee is leading the project, he explained, while his role was primarily to form the committee.
Peterson acknowledged in an interview that over the course of the year, he, Pomeroy, Sorensen, and designers met with stakeholders, including Winona Area Chamber of Commerce officials, to discuss the project and gather input. Pomeroy confirmed that he, the designers, and Sorensen met with Great River Shakespeare Festival representatives, other local festival organizers, and other stakeholders, and that the mayor was present at some of those meetings.
Buildings in Levee Park?
A new building in Levee Park to house a FWS visitors' center and possibly other facilities may not be far-fetched. Committee members supported the idea in the September meeting and Pomeroy indicated last week that leasing a new city-owned building to the FWS was a possibility.
The idea of developing large facilities in Levee Park is not new. Several past plans called for new buildings in the park, including a 1991 plan for a $7 million FWS visitor's center.
Pomeroy mentioned that a private citizen approached him with conceptual plans for a new building in the park, and offered to donate up to $10,000 toward its development. The concept is that a building could help act both as an attraction and as a gateway to the park, he explained.
Peterson said that a public-private partnership would be part of the project, but declined to discuss specifics.
Peterson said that a combination of public funds, donations, and grant funding would be used. The city has a variety of options for generating large amounts of public funding, some of which would require voter approval, and others that would not.
Project leaders renew their commitment
This is a crucial time for the Levee Park project, and the committee needs to step up to the plate and get the community excited, said committee member Mike Kennedy. "We need to take the responsibility on ourselves to go to our business contacts, our social contacts, and set the table for this event by saying what we believe and what a good job the committee has done and how we want to move forward to a point where it's possible for them to look at" conceptual designs, he said. That push is needed "to keep it all going forward and keep it more positive than the last three months."
Peterson thanked the committee for its efforts and said, "I'm frankly as excited now as I was when this started." In an interview, he spoke of all the people who have come to him in recent months with their hopes for the project. "We're looking to create a connection with the riverfront." That, he said, is something Winona has been missing.
The time is now, said Pomeroy. With the bridge project moving into final design and opportunities for added parkland beneath it, "it's an opportune time" for the city to take action on Levee Park plans.