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Downtown Winona: its downturns and opportunities over the years (10/28/2012)
By Emily Buss

Photo courtesy of the Winona County Historical Society
     Princess Wenonah proudly watches over Levee Plaza for nearly 15 years before being removed, along with the concrete, outdoor mall in 1992.

For many historically rich cities like Winona, it can be difficult to strike a balance between preserving original architecture and small town charm, and bringing in modern businesses and infrastructure. If the city fails to keep up with changing times, its economic stability falters. However, if developers pave over what makes the town unique, it loses all historic integrity. This has been Winona's struggle for decades.

The struggle began in earnest in the late sixties and early seventies, when the city accepted federal "urban renewal" programs. Since the advent of malls and big box stores, Winona's downtown has further struggled for viability. Recently, the Winona Port Authority and the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce came together to resurrect the effort at revitalization and to bring downtown back to life.

Main Street Past

By the end of the 1800s, Winona had a booming economy with a thriving commercial district that was ahead of its time. The city’s Levee Park welcomed river travelers to the shores of downtown, and Queen Anne style architecture was in evidence throughout town. Winona was held in high regard by other early river cities and set the precedent for downtown viability.

Winona continued to grow and adapt to the changing times. The effects of urban renewal swiftly altered the city during the 1960s, bringing the promise of a modern downtown district. The old Post Office was razed and a new one built on half of Central Park. The First National Bank was torn down and rebuilt on the old Post Office corner. That building now serves as the Winona County Government Center. Two more blocks between Center and Johnson streets were demolished with urban renewal funds, leaving existing businesses to find new locations elsewhere.

One of the most notable attempts to modernize the downtown was the construction of a pedestrian mall called Levee Plaza. In the summer of 1969, architects closed Third Street from Main to Walnut streets, and Center Street between Second and Fourth streets, and transformed the area into a pedestrian-only zone that was intended to modernize the downtown shopping experience.

Retail super giants J.C. Penney and Sears moved in along with what Bernie Wagnild—former Winona auto dealer, Chamber of Commerce member and Port Authority commissioner—called ‘shopsies.’

“We were looking for an anchor that would get people to shop downtown and J.C. Penny and Sears were it,” Wagnild said. “At the time, the feeling was we’d have all these quaint shops to attract visitors. But, in reality, that didn’t pay the rent.”

Current Winona City Councilman Gerry Krage said he remembers being a fresh face on the council when city officials toured enclosed malls in St. Anthony Falls and Red Wing that had been made by connecting existing downtown buildings.

“There was a large contractor that we were talking to that had done a lot of work with the then-new Canterbury Downs,” Krage said. “He had the idea to cover up the block with a roof. This was the most grandiose idea because there would have to be a lot of money pumped into the project. The big question was always: who has the money?”

The idea didn’t garner enough support from city government or private and public stakeholders to continue, and it fizzled. A renovation attempt in 1977 brought the Princess Wenonah statue to the plaza to make it more "park-like," but the shoppers didn't materialize, and the plaza quickly became a ghost town. 

Ideas on how to revitalize downtown came and went, but on September 18, 1984, a technological breakthrough in the form of a nationwide, simultaneous video conference was launched by National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Initiative. Its purpose was to “link up Main Streets across the nation." Winona was one of several cities across the country to investigate the Main Street project. The chamber hired an executive director, Dale Helmich-Leaf, in November of 1984 to take on the challenge of resurrecting downtown through the project.

Helmich-Leaf was only on the job for six months before it was reported that she resigned after “philosophical differences” prevented her from moving forward. However, in her short time as director of the initiative, she cited four major accomplishments: promotion of Winona as a Main Street city during National Preservation Week, cleaning up the once-empty Choate building, planting nearly 150 flowers downtown, and recognizing the importance of the Main Street initiative.

“Dale did a wonderful job during her time as director,” Krage said. “There was a lot of traction put into this program before I came to the council, and it was an exciting time.”

In August 1985, Deborah L. Molidor was named executive director and began to work on promoting the effort. By this time, Winona Downtown Inc., a seven-member steering committee responsible for executing the intitative, was established to implement the four-step program designed to revitalize downtown.

Former Governor Rudy Perpich assembled a design team and sent architects, landscape artists, and urban planners to Winona’s Main Street district for a three-day research excursion in October 1985. Winona Downtown Inc. sponsored the visit to bring ideas to the table, but the effort waned, and nothing came of the project.

For the next two years, more ideas fell to the wayside and Levee Plaza and downtown real estate continued to decline. In mid-1987, the Winona City Council began talks of removing Levee Plaza and reopening it to vehicular traffic. The Chamber of Commerce asked for one last chance to rehabilitate the district and recommended the council postpone a scheduled referendum on removing the mall.

During the next eight months, an appointed task force studied the viability of the area and concluded the district produced less than desirable retail sales, had an untapped revenue source in vacant upper floors of downtown buildings, and failed "to capitalize on ‘historic rivertown’ flavor.”

“There were a lot of hard-working, good faith efforts put forth but there was just no retail in Winona,” Wagnild said. After a meeting in Chicago with J.C. Penny and Sears, Wagnild said the retail giants backed out of their downtown spaces. “Winona was just too small. There wasn’t enough concentration of people to make it work. They both decided it wasn’t affordable to come into [downtown] Winona.”

In April 1988, Princess Wenonah received an eviction notice and Levee Plaza was officially slated for demolition. At the time, former Chamber of Commerce President Gary Evans said the removal of the mall was a physical sign of the Main Street initiative’s progress and the chamber gave the go-ahead for the city's proposed $845,000 mall removal and subsequent street rebuilding.

The Housing and Redevelopment Authority funded $270,000 of the project and the council received $540,000 in state highway aide to rebuild Third Street. The balance was paid for with assessment levies.

Demolition began that summer and in 1993, Main Street was open to vehicular traffic once again.

“The mall just didn’t work,” Wagnild said. “I’m not taking away from all the hard-working, well-intended people, but there just wasn’t enough capital.”

Former City Council member Harland Knight remembers being on the city council during this time and said even though beautification efforts were made and a framework was set up to continue the effort, it wasn’t a success.

“I don’t think there was a cohesive effort to make [the initiative] work,” Knight said. “At the time, the economy was so rough and enthusiasm for the effort just dried up.”

Krage said he can’t pinpoint the exact date the initiative was indefinitely shelved, but said the idea never completely went away.

“The idea just got into neutral,” Krage said. “It’s been talked about, it’s always an issue people are interested in. Can you say this was the day the trajectory of the project changed? No, you can’t. But it was something the city gave birth to and it is something that never died.”

With the reintroduction of the Main Street initiative less than a month ago, Wagnild said he is happy to hear people are talking about it again, but expressed his concern for the plan actually working.

"To be honest, I'm not sure what would draw people downtown," Wagnild said. "It could be the bars, but we all know there are two sides to that story. There just isn't any capital downtown. I moved my car dealership up to the Twin Cities because there is more of a marketing opportunity. If someone said there was a sure thing that would fix downtown, believe me, it would have been done."

Main Street today

Nearly a month has passed since the Main Street initiative was again proposed by the Chamber of Commerce. The work to get the project dusted off and running once again began in 2007. Winona Area Chamber of Commerce President Della Schmidt said with the help of the city and a major financial contribution from the Port Authority, the effort has a real shot at success.

Earlier this month, the chamber presented the city with a projected annual budget of $50,000. “[The chamber] has entered into a contract for service with the Port for $30,000, and the papers were just signed this week,” Schmidt said.

The remaining balance is likely to be funded by fundraising events throughout the coming year, funds from the chamber, and from a proposed Friends of Main Street group. Schmidt said the group is likely to be made up of private and public stakeholders, area businesses and members of the public who will be invited by the chamber.

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.”

An optimistic Schmidt reintroduced the effort to the City Council as the chamber is celebrating its 100th year. Krage said if the initiative was going to work, timing would be everything. And, Schmidt couldn’t agree more.

 “This year is bigger than any other year because it’s the centennial celebration of the chamber. As a board, we have a 100-year track record of representing business in the community,” Schmidt explained.

This time around, the effort will have three distinctly different features that weren’t there when the program first was tried in the late 80s, says Schmidt. The first difference, Schmidt explained, is the official designation of Winona as a Main Street city.

“The initiative in the 80s did not pursue the actual Main Street designation, which didn’t give the chamber the extra amount of educational and financial resources,” Schmidt said. “Having the added accountability of having a nationwide group oversee the process will make all the difference.”

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 on the downtown medians to storefront façade improvements.

Schmidt says the second difference will be to hire a full-time staff person to oversee the operations of the effort and provide more direction. Schmidt recognized the work of the local program’s part-time executive director, Helmich-Leaf, and said having a person in the program full time would mean more work could be done.

Finally, the third difference will be having the initiative under the umbrella of the chamber of commerce.

“This initiative will now have all the additional resources that are available to the chamber of commerce,” Schmidt said. “The entire chamber staff will be contributing toward this goal and the effort will have an entire team backing it up.”

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. The chamber will hire a full-time staff person dedicated strictly to the progress of the Main Street movement by January 2013.

“The first thing I would hope to see come out of this project is a community-wide recognition that this effort needs to be a culture change,” Schmidt said. “Downtown is an important and vital aspect to Winona. Steps to get this off the ground are going to take more than a year. This is not a quick fix and has to be a community-wide, multi-year effort.” 


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