by Frances Edstrom
It was heartening to read that the City Council is giving the Wilkie Steamboat at the Levee another chance. Folks who've been around Winona long enough can recite a list of buildings or landmarks that the city, county or school district has been too anxious to junk, just because they needed a little fixing up.
The Winona County Courthouse, the old Middle School, the old Wagon Bridge, Somsen Hall, the College of Saint Teresa and the Public Library come to mind as structures that were saved from demolition by people with vision, and a willingness to raise private money to help get the job done.
The list of landmarks lost is long "” the graceful old watertower that proclaimed to all who passed that this was Winona, the Morgan block, the magnificent old post office (which stood where the bank building turned Winona County Government Center currently stands, a property that even the county doesn't want anymore, except for its 22 parking spaces next to the Winona County Historical Society that the county attorney and county administrator seem willing to die for).
When I drive over the Mississippi River bridge and see the restored old Wagon Bridge, I am reminded of the doom and gloom talk in City Hall and around town that proclaimed that the bridge must be demolished "” at a hefty price. But then a group came forward and offered to spearhead a fund-raising drive, and with the help of a very large matching grant from an anonymous donor, were successful in restoring the bridge.
No one can guarantee the success of the group that has come forward to restore the Wilkie, but the city was right in giving it the chance, and the group is accelerating its plans now that it has been given a green light. Some will argue that the land the Wilkie sits on is too valuable to accommodate a steamboat replica. But so far, no one has come forth with a concrete plan to replace the Wilkie with anything.
No plan, no numbers. It might remind Winonans of the years and years after the Morgan building was demolished, (with urban renewal money we just couldn't turn down), that the block sat vacant, its only contribution to downtown Winona a good dusting of dirt and grit every time the wind blew. It was finally replaced with the Plaza building, which has turned out to have been a questionable trade at best. There still are plans existing for a proposed River Center to be built around the Wilkie, which would have incorporated the steamboat replica into a larger complex. The replica was not originally meant to stand alone, and could still be a part of a comprehensive plan for the Levee, should the city come forward with such. Take a look sometime. Winona has a very long riverfront. The land under the Wilkie is but a fraction of it.
We need to encourage all government officials to always consider the wisdom of keeping the structures and landmarks that make Winona unique among cities up and down the Mississippi River and tell the story of our history in 3-D and living color.