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Could we know what the plan is? (04/15/2007)
By John Edstrom

Against all odds, (at least as they were figured by some), the Julius C. Wilkie Paddleboat group is ready to go forward with the first phase of repairing the main deck of the steamboat replica that sits on the riverfront at the foot of Main Street. City government gave the volunteer organization a year, back in January, to get the Wilkie back in good repair and make it a viable entity. Despite the nay-saying and rather mean-spirited sniggering from some quarters, the group has acquired funding and wherewithal to get the project rolling, despite impossibly high repair estimates of from $270,000 privately, to $400,000 by the city. Back in January, City Hall and the City Council expressed nothing but support for the volunteers and the project. So now that it is moving forward, without tax dollars or much in the way of input from city staff, what is the reaction?

Well, the city wants to know exactly how much money the project will cost, and will pay for a more extensive analysis before allowing it to go forward. Councilman Tim Breza said, "The numbers that got kicked around in my estimation are very low."

What a classic! A volunteer group comes forward to make a project work that city government has declared nigh impossible. Then when they prove it can be done, for next to nothing, City Hall insists on spending money to prove that it really, truly, can't be done. (And who wants to bet the city won't spend more to nix the work than the Wilkie group will spend doing it?)

Breza also volunteered, "They need to show the community what they really want to do with a restored building there. That's going to help the community support it and also help with fund-raising." Well at least the councilman wants to help. But he's way behind the volunteers who have already generated community support and raised funds.

Now it may turn out that the Wilkie group has overreached and will be unable to complete its work. If that happens, we can all have a good laugh at their expense and then tear the thing down, as the city quite apparently wants, but won't say so. Instead, the very transparent ploy is to kill the group's work with phony roadblocks, all the time pretending to support it. Obviously, the longer the city delays, the harder it will be to raise funds and build support.

Whoever thinks that the public is too stupid to sniff out this strategem is stupid himself. In fact, it is obvious that city government, or elements thereof, want something else to appear on the waterfront where the Wilkie now stands, and that may well be fine. Let whoever come forward with the plan and sell it to the public. That's how democracy is supposed to work. But to sabotage the Wilkie restoration while pretending to support it, all the time facilitating something else which will magically roll out after the steamboat is gone, is not likely to fool anyone this time around.

The city of Winona's m.o. has been increasingly obvious these past few years: talk in platitudes, keep the public in the dark, pursue the hidden agenda strenuously but behind the scenes. Sewer pipes extending to wherever for whom? Special taxes to pay for projects to be named later? Industrial parks magically turning into retail complexes? Whatever we want, whatever the rubes will swallow.

Councilman Breza " the only one who seems willing to be quoted on the subject " said the city could put something in the place of the Wilkie that people wanted more, like an interpretive center, reflective pond, or statue. Fine. Let whoever say what it is and where it will come from. If it turns out to be some private development, that should be made known up front.

Until then we have something in place, which the plan seems to be to tear down, in favor of nothing. (This is the strategic plan that Winona will always default to.) In the meantime the Wilkie volunteers have been given the job of gathering support and fixing the boat up. So far they have done an amazing job, and they deserve to be allowed to move forward rather than be sandbagged by people or interests who don't have the decency or courage to step out of the shadows.



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