In five short weeks, newly-elected Winona City Council members will take their place in the council chambers. At the head of the table, Mark Peterson will assume his new duties as mayor of Winona. Peterson won in a tight contest with George Borzyskowski. Peterson, a longtime Winonan and Executive Director of the Winona County Historical Society for more than three decades, said his passion for the community is the reason he ran for mayor.
“I’ve always thought at some point I would run for this position. It is a good time in my life personally and professionally, so in the end it was something I was passionate about doing,” Peterson explained. “I wanted to do something more for this city and I think my motives are pretty pure.”
Throughout his time in Winona, Peterson noted he has seen the city move in a positive direction, and he wants to continue the forward momentum. As a lifelong historian and advocate for a rich cultural community, he said his top priority is restoring Winona to its former glory.
and Levee Park
The recent reintroduction of the Main Street initiative, Peterson said, sparked a renewed interest in a refurbished downtown. A partnership between the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce and the Port Authority, which awarded the initiative $30,000, is the missing puzzle piece that Peterson said gives the plan a stronger chance of success.
“I think there have been a lot of committees throughout the years that all aimed to get downtown back, but I think the success will come from the downtown businesses and the community getting together to make this work,” Peterson said. “We have a proven program on our side but it’s not going to happen by itself. We need business involvement, promotion of downtown, and we need to focus on our assets, which is our architecture.”
Winona has been a well-known historic destination for years and the city’s Queen Anne, Gothic Revival, and Italianate homes are a major attraction for history buffs. The downtown architecture is also appealing to shoppers who frequent downtown because of the quaint storefronts and local products. However, shops often do not have consistent hours, and some have left in search of bigger markets. Peterson said his goal is to promote bringing shoppers back to the downtown and reintroducing them to the small-town charm.
“We need to get involved with businesses to fix up and maintain properties, and learn about what other successful historic cities have done,” Peterson explained. “The promotion of the downtown district and the fact that downtown has this rich architecture is going to be a major factor to its success. We need to have signs on Highway 61 that point travelers in the direction of downtown and have a well defined area that says where the historic districts are. I’d like to see a better downtown and I think having a better downtown will attract more professional people and businesses.”
Another project at the top of his list is the transformation and revitalization of Levee Park. Peterson said it is some of the best riverside real estate in Winona, but is severely underperforming. Several failed urban renewal initiatives left Levee Park to waste away.
“Right now, Levee Park is an embarrassment,” Peterson admitted. “It is not the pride of the town that it once was. It’s my hope to make this park a focal point of downtown and that’s the one promise I made throughout my campaign. I’m excited about fixing it up and I’m anxious to get to work.”
Peterson said in order to get Levee Park up and running once again, the storage yard that cuts the park off from the river must be removed. It is not an inexpensive project, and Peterson said he understands the fiscal burden the city would have to undertake to remove the rail yard, but said it would be for the benefit of the community.
“I don’t know where the money would come from to remove the rail yard, but coming from a nonprofit background, I do know there is a way to raise funds,” he said.
Peterson has kept a list of potential Levee Park activities that would bring families and visitors to the river shore once again. From Shakespeare performances and a sculpture garden, to several picnic tables and a small restaurant, Peterson said he believes Levee Park can come back.
“There are a hundred ideas out there and I’m excited about doing something better,” Peterson declared. “Thinking about all the possibilities energizes me and makes me think that [revitalizing Levee Park] is going to happen.”
On the minds of many Winonans is the potential for a tax hike if state aid is cut or diminished. Even with the possibility of dwindling aid, Peterson said, he is confident that Winona is in a good fiscal state.
“I’m optimistic when it comes to state funding, and I think the local government aid will be there. Maybe I should be more concerned, but if it becomes an issue, I would fight as hard as I could to keep the funding that we need,” Peterson explained.
He said the city has been on the right track financially and boasts a “lean” city budget. Peterson praised City Manager Judy Bodway and City Finance Director Mary Burrichter for keeping the city financially stable.
“Although the budget is a big budget, I think it’s pretty lean. After sitting through recent budget meetings, I don’t think there will be anything to trim to save money,” he said.
Peterson also elaborated on the hotly debated half-cent sales tax to extend Louisa Street in Winona's East End. The last time the city had a half-cent sales tax on the ballot was in 2006, when several projects that could be funded by the tax were mentioned. The Louisa Street extension, Levee Park improvements, Highway 61 corridor improvements were all proposed, but not promised, to benefit from that tax. However, that November, voters defeated the idea.
“I think a half-cent sales tax makes sense, but it is a tough sell with voters,” Peterson admitted. “I think it’s certainly one way to look at completing some of the bigger projects. There are a lot of projects on the city’s list, and the people and the council will have to decide which ones are top priority."
Peterson said he would work hard to keep Winona on the path of financial stability while keeping taxes low.
A collective sigh of relief could be heard throughout Winona in August, when the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) announced that a new Interstate Bridge would be built. After years of petitioning for either restoring or rebuilding the bridge, plans were brought forward to do both.
“We are ultimately getting the best of both worlds,” Peterson said of the proposed plans. “We have a beautiful historic bridge that will be renovated alongside the newly constructed bridge. If there is ever a problem on the bridge, the concern of shutting it down again will be erased.”
In 2008, the city took an economic hit when, without warning, the Interstate Bridge shut down for 11 days. Mn/DOT calculated what was called a “daily user cost,” a dollar number assigned to count the average daily cost of inconvenience to bridge users. The department estimated the shutdown to cost as much as $6,250 per day. Traffic backups had a negative impact on both people and businesses in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Area businesses in the construction path of the new bridge, which is proposed to be just upstream from the existing bridge, have the potential to be negatively affected, however. The conceptual drawing suggests some properties near Fourth and Winona streets could be moved or demolished.
“I have to believe that the engineers are doing a good job creating this plan, but I am aware of the concerns,” Peterson said. The YMCA, which is located at the base of the bridge, recently expressed concern for the potential of reduced parking space to accommodate the new bridge. “Their concerns are legitimate and I understand they will be impacted, but I think the new bridge is a great move forward.”
The estimated cost of constructing the new bridge is between $150 million and $175 million (2008 dollars), and will come from the state’s federal allotment for roads and bridges. Local government officials are saying the project should be within that current budget, but if costs go over the proposed budget, Peterson said he would work with the council and the community to find the best funding source to pay for any additional costs.
Peterson will officially begin his term as Mayor at the first council meeting of 2013, along with First Ward City Council member incumbent Al Thurley, City Council At-Large member-elect Paul Double, and City Council Third Ward council member-elect Pam Eyden. Eyden was recently sworn in to fill the vacancy after the death of longtime councilwoman Deb Salyards.
An enthusiastic Peterson said the first item on his agenda in January is tackling Levee Park and continuing the work associated with the Main Street initiative.
“I look at 2013 as a learning experience,” Peterson said. “I think helping people with some real problems and being more a part of the community is what I most look forward to. I want to help move things forward and I want to be a booster for things I’m interested in that also benefit the community.”