by Winona Post Publisher Patrick P. Marek
Did you hear all the commotion? That was the sound of the Winona Heritage Preservation Commission frantically trying to slam the barn door shut after all the horses had escaped. On Wednesday the commission voted unanimously to approve a recommendation to designate the former Winona Junior and High School buildings as historic sites. This sudden attention by the commission was sparked by recent negotiations between the Winona Port Authority and MetroPlains to demolish the old auditorium and provide much-needed parking for the Winona Public Library, Masonic Temple and WSU’s Laird Norton Center for Art and Design.
As the owner of a historic (1867) building in the heart of downtown Winona, I support the commission’s efforts to preserve Winona’s historic architecture and to hold building owners’ feet to the fire when they practice “demolition by neglect,” and don’t maintain their historic properties. However, this effort to save the dilapidated, toxic and unsafe old auditorium is 15 years too late and at least $16 million too short.
The old auditorium is like a historic Easter egg with a beautiful shell, but a rotten core. If it was a hospital patient, the doctors would advise quickly putting affairs in order and picking out a nice suit for the funeral.
How bad is it? According to Winona Fire Chief Curt Bittle, and Assistant Police Chief Tom Williams, city police and firefighters have been instructed not to enter the auditorium because of health and safety concerns. Apparently, a few years ago, area youths had found a way into the auditorium, and MetroPlains kept calling the police and fire department to have them removed from the premises.
Officers discovered dangerous cesspools of tainted standing water, black mold, and falling ceiling tiles. MetroPlains was told to lock down the building, and that they could expect no security help from Winona Police and Fire departments. Chief Bittle said that if the old auditorium caught fire, it would have to be fought from outside the building, with no firefighters entering the structure.
It’s easy to understand why local residents would be angry at the prospect of another Winona landmark being razed for parking. Parking lots aren’t sexy, but they sure come in handy when you need to attend an event and it’s 20 below zero, or pouring rain. People of a certain age drive by the old auditorium and remember an elegant 1,000-seat theater that hosted countless unforgettable dramatic and musical events. If those same people donned hazmat suits and ventured inside today, those memories would soon be shattered by buckled floors, standing water, animal infestation, and noxious mold.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the current sad state of the auditorium. The Winona Area Public Schools District is culpable for selling these proud Winona landmark buildings for the paltry total sum of $5,000 (sound familiar?). MetroPlains should be ashamed that they never tried to use or maintain the structure, and have essentially destroyed by neglect an essential piece of Winona’s past. The Port Authority should have taken action when MetroPlains asked for help in repairing the downspouts that were leaking into the auditorium. Finally, the Heritage Preservation Commission should have shown interest in preserving the auditorium when there was still a chance it could be saved.
They say that any building can be renovated … for the right price. However, unless someone is willing to invest ocean liners full of cash to restore the auditorium, and then find parking for 1,000 people attending events, the building is doomed. Back when WAPS first put the buildings on the market, I was producing musical theater productions for the benefit of local nonprofit organizations. I thoroughly investigated the viability of refurbishing the auditorium to create a home for local community theater, and found that, even though the renovation costs were feasible ($2-3 million), there was no appetite in the market for funding the project.
The current agreement being negotiated between the Port Authority and MetroPlains would be beneficial for Winona … as long as MetroPlains holds up their part of the bargain. Essentially, the Port Authority would forgive MetroPlains’ $400,000 debt ($300,000 principle/$100,000 interest), in return for MetroPlains demolishing the auditorium, removing the rubble and leveling the site, and repairing the outside building wall so that it is presentable and meets city and state codes.
That sounds like a great deal, but Winona has a history of looking gift horses in the mouth, with the most recent examples being the rejection of WSU’s incredibly generous offer for a new baseball stadium and totally refurbished softball fields, and Kwik Trip being pressured out of buying the YMCA at a premium price, with terms that would have jump started the organization’s capital campaign. Objections from small, but extremely vocal groups of citizens derailed both of those projects. Winona’s softball fields required an injection of taxpayer cash to be made safe and playable. Changing financial times have put WSU’s plans for a new baseball stadium on the shelf, and although the YMCA is very close to its goal for the new facility, the loss of support from Kwik Trip set the project back at least two years.
Winona’s historic downtown is experiencing a renaissance. The future is bright, but some tough choices have to be made. If we don’t take advantage of this opportunity to remove the unsound old auditorium now, we will lose out on desperately needed parking, the structure will likely never be renovated, and while it still might look passable from the street, Winona’s once proud theater will continue to rot from within, creating a dangerous environment that will eventually have to be dealt with … at a much higher price than the current solution.