It has been five years since a downtown revitalization plan with any teeth has hit the desks at Winona City Hall. The once-famous commercial district sat in revitalization limbo long after the city’s 2007 capital improvement plan paved the way for upgrades. However, a recent partnership between the Winona Port Authority and the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce may finally result in the formula to resurrect and preserve the downtown.
Photo courtesy of Winona County Historical Society
The photograph is from the era of the Levee Plaza. All vehicle traffic was diverted from Third Street between Lafayette and Main streets for a pedestrian mall. Below, an aerial shot of downtown Winona from 1960.
The last two months have been busy in the office of the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce President. Della Schmidt is spearheading a new initiative in Winona she hopes will rejuvenate and preserve downtown. With the help of $30,000 from the Port Authority, and the direction from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street program, Winona could see its downtown come back to life.
“This has really been a long time coming,” Schmidt said. “Since 2007, we have been taking baby steps to get this initiative off the ground.”
The Lake Lodge lighting initiative, Light Up Main Street project, and beautification of the Main Street medians were all part, Schmidt said, of getting the “small pieces of the puzzle together to start creating the bigger picture.”
The agreement between the Chamber and Port Authority is just the first step, Schmidt explained, in a multi-year commitment that begins with the designation of Winona as a "Main Street City."
A nationally recognized program, the Main Street initiative has helped cities across the United States revitalize and manage their downtown neighborhood and commercial districts. The initiative uses a four-point system—organization, promotion, design, and economic restructuring—that focuses on saving historic districts that are threatened by a struggling economy.
In the next month, the city and chamber will complete an application to secure the Main Street designation from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A nine-member advisory steering committee will be appointed by the end of the year. Finally, the chamber will hire a full-time staff person dedicated strictly to the progress of the Main Street movement. Schmidt anticipates filling the post by January 2013.
“We will have that staff person dedicated to the movement and we have a proven, nationally recognized program to guide us,” said Schmidt.
Winona would join the ranks of four other Minnesota cities with the Main Street designation: Brainerd, Faribault, Red Wing, and Willmar.
“What appeals to me is the track record behind this program,” Port Authority and City Council Member Al Thurley explained. “I think it can help us make downtown the success that I know it can be.”
When Winona becomes a designated Main Street community, the National Trust for Historic Preservation will provide assistance for specific projects the city is undertaking. Schmidt said projects could range from managing the potted plants and other foliage in the downtown medians to storefront façade improvements.
“The important concept to remember as we put this program together is that all of the work won’t be done in several months,” Schmidt said. “Rome wasn’t built in a day. We need to put the right staff together and allow the steering committee to take this concept and help it grow. The real work is yet ahead and this is going to be a long, committed journey.”
History of downtown revitalization
By the end of the 1800s, Winona had a booming economy and the commercial district was ahead of its time. The city created the first Levee park on the Mississippi River and boasted quality Queen Anne style architecture all over town. Winona was held in high regard by other early river cities and set the precedent for town preservation.
Winona continued to grow and change. Urban renewal swept through town during the 1960s, bringing with it the promise of a modern downtown district and the plans for a state-of-the-art river center that would bring in tourists by the thousands.
“The program tried to take care of the blight in the urban areas and what they defined as blight was the old downtown buildings,” Winona County Historical Society Executive Director Mark Peterson said. “By this time, downtown was struggling and the plan was to start with the old post office and court house and build more modern government buildings.” The post office was demolished and a new one built on half of Central Park. A concerted effort by local activists saved the court house from demolition.
However, Peterson said, funding kept falling through, leaving Winona's charming downtown to disintegrate. The first federal dollars given to Winona’s revitalization plan were used to demolish what was known as the Morgan Block, which was Main Street to Center Street, and Third Street to Second Street, Peterson said.
“They tore down what many people argued was the prettiest downtown commercial Victorian block,” Peterson said. “They had a gravel parking lot in that area for years. The one-story mall that’s there is struggling. I don’t think this endeavor was as successful as they thought it would be.”
Floodwaters ripped through the city in 1965 and 1969, putting an indefinite stop to downtown revitalization plans while the focus was on the destroyed Levee Park and flood mitigation. Plans to build a dike protecting the city were quickly approved. Citizens became concerned, and the Historical Society feared a concrete wall could jeopardize river views. The society paid $10,000 to study how the wall could be built to retain a river connection. But the concrete dike was built, giving Levee Park the new nickname “Concrete Park.”
The next three decades produced more fruitless efforts to revitalize downtown and Levee Park, and the lack of funding was always the crux of the problem. The Special Service District proposed in 2007 was designed to collect funds from downtown businesses to pay for a variety of projects that would enhance Winona. Properties in this district were to be assessed on a yearly basis and the money put into a downtown fund.
Joe Barbeau, who was then the assistant city planner, said the money could be put toward anything one could imagine. However, by the end of 2007, the plan was quashed. Two years later, the Historic Downtown Business Group and the Downtown Revitalization Committee talked about merging, but failed to do so. There is not now a downtown business group.
“You would go to meetings and have two groups doing one thing and then the Chamber wanted to do another thing; it just kind of fizzled out,” Peterson said. “Then, the Main Street approach was being pursued.”
The City of Winona has entertained at least a dozen downtown revitalization plans since the mid-1960s, but has found it difficult to secure funds. Committees have been appointed by City Hall to study revitalization of the Levee and downtown, but nothing became of them, as plans were never funded. As recently as August 2011, Winona city leaders talked about rejuvenating Levee Park and downtown, but that effort, too, faded away.
Already in the city's 2007 capital improvement plan, Schmidt said, the Main Street initiative is the right option at the right time. Both Peterson and Schmidt say they share the optimism of the Port Authority that the Main Street initiative is what's right for Winona.
"We are prepared to move forward with full implementation of the Main Street program," Schmidt said. "Funding has always been the biggest equation and thanks to our unique partnership with the Port, we are able to get this off the ground."
"This is not a program where we do four things and then sit back and look at what we've done; this is a long journey," Schmidt said. "This is going to be a continuous culture change."
Read the Winona Post next week for more on the various downtown revitalization projects in Winona over the years.