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Shabby treatment from City Hall (06/06/2007)
By John Edstrom

Monday night's surprise vote by the City Council to tear down the Wilkie Steamboat Museum at the foot of Main Street is the culmination, probably, of the shabbiest, most dishonest, worst faith transaction in the history of Winona government. I say "probably" not because there is any other incident that can rival this one in infamy, but because city government's bad faith in its dealings with the Julius C. Wilkie Paddleboat committee has been so atrocious the group may well have recourse in the courts.

To recap: Mayor Jerry Miller held a town meeting a year ago in July 2006, seeking input from citizens as to what to do with the Wilkie and Levee Park. Volunteers stepped forward to try to save the replica steamboat and museum, and were eventually charged by city government to find a way to renovate it and make it into a viable and self-sustaining attraction.

There was much expression of support by city government and council members, even photo ops. That is, until the work of the Wilkie group began to bear fruit. Then, second thoughts began to arise. When the Paddleboat committee announced that they could begin their renovation, all without city help or financing, City Hall decided to spend money to prove it couldn't be done, came forward with its own estimate of nearly $500,000, (about what it cost to build it, by the way,) and announced that no work could go forward on the Wilkie, by now desperately in need of basic repair, until all that money was raised.

Of course, the volunteers could do it for much less, being volunteers, after all, but no matter. And it became obvious that their efforts had been welcome only because they were thought doomed to failure. Committee member Tammy Kenner speculated, ""Why would they give us permission to raise the money? For the fun of it? To waste our time?" It's a fair question.

In an interview last Friday, Mayor Miller professed to want to hear more from the public about what they wanted for Levee Park, the question he had asked last July, and which led to the formation of the Paddleboat committee. Obviously, now, he would like a different answer. Sometimes, he speculated, people didn't really say what they want until a decision has been made. By Monday night, however, that didn't seem to matter either. "I'm not going to get into those for and those against [saving the Wilkie]," said the Mayor.

After a short discussion about the imperative of not spending precious tax dollars on the Wilkie, which is of course what the Paddleboat committee has been working hard and successfully to prevent all this last year, the council voted 4-3 to spend $60,000 (would that be a thoroughly fanciful number?) to tear down the structure.

So the Paddleboat committee members were left to deal with the plain fact that they had been invited to work their tails off for the city, but only to the point that they might actually achieve something, when their work would be scuttled and them sent home, without thanks. It was Deb Salyards who said the one thing about city finances that wasn't rank hypocrisy "” how could city government ever again ask anyone to come forward to do volunteer work after what they had put the Paddleboat people through?

This is plain. There is a lot of nonsense being put forth from the mayor and some members of the council about determining what the people really want for the Wilkie, when they have perfectly good evidence, which they have acted on, in bad faith, that the people want the Wilkie to remain "” at least until there is a concrete and viable plan for something better. What the mayor and council voted for Monday is to go ahead with the destruction of the Wilkie despite all that evidence, without any concrete alternative. The obvious goal is to make the Wilkie disappear before something else is rolled out.

This can only lead one to believe that there is some plan in place, which is not being shared with the public, about what is to be done with the public's property, much less for whose benefit. Unfortunately, that is becoming typical of this Winona city government.




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