It's sometimes easy to overlook what we have in place. Luckily, not everyone turns a blind eye to what the Winona area offers.
I know the organizers of the Great River Shakespeare Festival saw the possibilities. One thing they saw is that Winona is ideally situated to benefit from tourism.
We are smack dab in the very epicenter of the most beautiful part of the entire Mississippi River, close to large population centers, a strong local and diverse economy, two universities and a technical college, and some of the best architecture anywhere on the upper Mississippi River. Now with the new Beethoven Festival, the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, the much discussed and long awaited expansion of the Winona County Historical Museum set to begin, as well as other events and attractions, Winona is starting to get the kind of attention it deserves.
I was at a meeting recently where the director of the Minnesota Office of Tourism (Explore Minnesota) said that tourism revenue in Minnesota equals the revenue generated by agriculture "” about $12 billion a year! Over one-third of the people who took part in a recent survey by the state tourism office said that history, museums, events and cultural attractions were part of their reason for visiting the state. I've seen other studies that show those who visit museums and historic sites tend to be better educated, have higher personal income, spend more and stay longer.
I believe that Winona is at a crossroad in its history. For a long time Winonans have struggled with preserving their past. When it comes to historic preservation we too often have opted for the easy solution and quick fix. Too often we hear that a building looks awful, the weeds are unsightly, there are dead pigeons inside, the roof leaks, it will cost too much to fix and should be torn down. Many people see only what is in front of them and not what something can become. We should look completely at the possibilities before moving on.
The old Post Office, the Morgan Block, Central Park, the Opera House"¦the list is long of important buildings that we have torn down. Sometimes structures are beyond fixing, will cost more than they are worth to fix, or cannot be adapted for other purposes. It can be difficult to take. We should remember what we have lost, but not dwell on it. But we should learn from the past as we look at our future.
The local Heritage Preservation Commission, along with Historic Downtown Winona, and the city of Winona, has been working on locally designating our two National Register districts. This will be coming before the City Council in the near future. The purpose behind this effort is to provide some protection for our historic buildings and help with keeping better quality of design within the districts.
We should be proud of our interesting and colorful history and the fact we have some of the finest 19th and early 20th century architecture to be found anywhere along the upper Mississippi River. Using history to sell Winona to tourists and people looking to relocate makes a lot of sense. It certainly isn't the only answer but it can be an important part of our future.
Mark Peterson is the Executive Director of the Winona County Historical Society.