by Frances Edstrom, columnist
When a community talks about what is necessary for its city government to provide in return for our tax dollars, usually what comes to mind are streets, police, and fire departments. But if we think some more, we realize how much more we rely on the city to do for us.
A drive around Winona reminds us of how much the city has invested in our beautiful parks and recreation: ice skating and hockey, softball, tennis, golf, biking, walking, running, hiking, camping, boating, swimming, rock climbing, fishing, disc golf, you name it. We have a gorgeous library and a beautiful lookout at Garvin Heights.
All of these things are paid for by the city with our taxes, and some minimal fees from the public.
None of these amenities could be built or supported without city government. All the people who want to swim in the heat of the summer couldn’t afford to build an aquatic center by themselves. It takes the rest of the citizens to chip in with their taxes, even though they’ve never stepped a toe in the water there. The same is true of the softball fields, the ice rinks, the bike path, the campgrounds. It takes all Winona taxpayers to support the city’s recreational offerings and parks.
At a recent meeting of the city council, there was discussion about the future of the Masonic building. It is a city property, having been purchased years ago from the local Masons. It has been a fixture in downtown Winona since the early 1900s, and for several years has been the home of the Winona Friendship Center (or senior center, as most everyone calls it) and TdM, a group that produces theater.
The city has, over the last couple years, begun a renovation of the Masonic, but has suddenly begun talking about delaying the installation of HVAC using bond money, or even abandoning the building altogether.
Some council members have suggested that an arts organization could buy the building and do the repairs. That would be a great idea. Arts organizations struggle to find places to meet and do business, having board meetings in people’s homes, coffee shops, or restaurants. However, having an arts organization buy the Masonic, even a consortium of arts organizations, is gravely unrealistic.
Winona arts organizations, large and small, are nonprofits in the true sense of the word. They don’t make a profit, and in fact most of them struggle to remain in the black, even the ones that are considered very successful. All arts organizations rely heavily on donations and grants to be able to continue existing.
Council members say that the city supports the arts. That’s like saying I support my neighbor’s garden. Sure, I like that it is so beautiful and right next door to me and I might think of giving them a packet of seeds. But liking that something is around is not supporting it.
The city recently hired a person to do something with the arts, and so far that effort has been directed toward creating new events, not supporting what is already here. The city has a Fine Arts Commission that can secure some grant dollars, and has also invested in public art in the form of a couple wonderful sculptures. That is the extent of the city’s support of the arts in Winona. City money does not go into the coffers of the arts organizations that make Winona a great place to live and attract audiences from out of town, which support Winona businesses. Unlike parks and recreation expenditures, Winona taxpayer money does not go to support the arts in any meaningful way, even though a large number of taxpayers are heavily involved in the arts.
Back to the discussion of the Masonic building. The city has already committed to a renovation of the building, and has spent significant money. The smart thing to do is finish the job and make the building into a space that can be used year-round, unlike the present state of affairs. Even if the Friendship Center were to move out, the building is part of the downtown rivertown landscape, and can be converted for other uses. I would hope those other uses would be focused on the arts, and that Winona would begin to put some effort into really supporting the arts community, which has mushroomed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, making the city an arts destination in not only the region, but the Midwest.