More than 10 years ago, during one of my first weeks on the job, I remember it quite fondly. Fran was recovering from surgery, so Cynthya Porter and I would go to the Edstrom house and eat lunch and have our news meetings there. It was a Wednesday, and during this meeting, we had a special guest, a woman from the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. She was talking to us about Winona’s historic elementary schools, and since I was a newbie, she was sharing the basics: being counted among the National Register of Historic Places provides incentives for preservation such as tax credits and grants; being listed on the Local Historic Register has some teeth, and any external changes, or worse — demolition — requires city approval. She told us one of the best things that those advocating for the preservation and reuse of a closed, historic elementary school can do is get owners, or someone, to do something called a “reuse study,” which shows different options for the way a building can be renovated for different uses but retain its external historic beauty, much like the way the former middle school was converted into apartments. These kinds of studies can be more enticing to developers, allowing them to envision what they might do with such a property without having to hire engineers themselves to find the possibilities. I’ve been asking superintendents and school boards since to do such a study, but unfortunately, they have not.
And here we are, with a plan to close the bulk of our historic buildings (contingent, of course, on voters giving the nod to a $90 million plan that closes their neighborhood schools). We don’t have a plan for the old buildings, we don’t have a reuse study, and we’ve continued to ignore the folks who have brought forward studies suggesting kids fare better academically in smaller-school settings, despite the glaring evidence our own middle and high schools present. But you know what really grinds my gears? The front-page story today that includes some Winona City Council members suggesting that those historic elementary buildings may well face the wrecking ball.
You see, the city has spent years talking about how it is going to nominate the elementary buildings as Local Historic Sites (the designation that would provide protection from the wrecking ball). Years. You don’t have to keep them open as schools, they have said, we just want to retain our beautiful, historic buildings. A lot of communities don’t have such ornate, historic sites to protect, don’t have rich histories to recall, didn’t have generous lumber barons and bankers traveling to Italy 80 years ago to bring home marble statues with which to adorn them. I can remember this conversation going back a decade at the Winona Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) table, members stating they had the paperwork all put together for the nomination and were just waiting to pull the trigger. Well, that trigger was pulled in 2011, with a unanimous vote to move ahead with the designation. The HPC voted again in 2013 to do the same. Nothing happened. Most recently, it again voted to designate the buildings in July, but still, nothing has happened. And now it seems the City Council, which has the ultimate authority over the designation and the power to either protect these buildings from demolition or give the go-ahead, may be thinking otherwise.
I don’t think these buildings should be torn down. I think that reuse study should have been done years ago, before this community spent $20,000 on consultants to help us evaluate facility plans, because that information could have helped us understand which buildings are the most marketable, the easiest to redevelop for another use. But if the City Council doesn’t support a local designation and indeed thinks it’s OK to demolish them, that is information that should have been given to the School Board a very long time ago. This facility process has been extremely hard for our school leaders, and it hasn’t been taken lightly, whether you agree with the plan on the table or not. Those $20,000 consultants had to work under the assumption that the buildings could not be torn down, all the while lamenting the lack of available land to build anew, and coming up with rather strange plans to build additions and put playgrounds on rooftops to get around the we-don’t-have-enough-room-for-a-large-addition plus we-can’t-demo-these-buildings formula they were presented with. I honestly can’t understand why the local designation process wasn’t undertaken years ago. Whether it was successful or not, at least the school district would have understood the playing field before we exhausted all this time and energy examining every possible building configuration one could think of — every possible one save one that included demolition and land with which to build upon.
I’d like to see these buildings saved. I think this community would support paying to renovate them, and redistricting could do the work of balancing class sizes. I don’t think people will support paying $90 million to close their neighborhood schools. But regardless, two things need to happen: District 861 needs to conduct a reuse study for all its historic buildings, and the City Council needs to pony up and vote on whether it truly wants to save them.