The new City of Winona Levee Park Committee charged with looking at ways to revitalize that park will meet for the first time next Tuesday.
"It is our only park along the river; it is our only way to connect with the river," Mayor Mark Peterson said of the park. "This is the front door to the community and it is a part of the city's past that always has been the pride of the community, and I don't think it is today."
At the first meeting, Peterson said he will lay out what he wants the committee to accomplish—that is, to decide how to best make the park an enjoyable space again and to come up with a clear plan for how to realize the proposal. Citizens can expect an initial discussion from committee members, many of whom will be coming with ideas of their own or input from citizens, of how to begin.
Peterson said he hopes there will opportunities for citizens to share their input on the plans for the park. "The more community engagement the better," he said. He mentioned that there may be a public meeting as design ideas are formed.
While Peterson said he will defer to the committee's recommendations, his goals for the park include making the park more accessible from downtown (possibly by removing a rail storage yard which divides much of the park from downtown), making it easier to get to and from the riverside within the park, making the river visible from the entire park area, and increasing the green space in the park.
Part of Peterson's hopes are that a rejuvenated Levee Park will attract more people to downtown businesses.
"We are a river city," said Frank Pomeroy, former police chief and chair of the Levee Park Committee. "When you travel to Redwing and Lake City and see what they do around their river—we have gotten away from that. We need to get back to some of the history of the river and allow the families to get back there and enjoy what I think is one of the most beautiful levees on the Mississippi. We have the river running right through our city and we should take advantage of that."
Pomeroy is especially invested in Levee Park. As a boy he would spend much of his time at the park, fishing for "fiddlers" or baby catfish. "It goes back a long way for me and my family," he said.
The idea of giving Levee Park a face lift goes a long way back, as well. Over the years, there have been a number of committees and plans for park renovations. (See story page 5a.) The new committee will look at the work of old committees, Peterson said. "We are not starting from scratch here."
Peterson added that he thinks times have changed since the last Levee Park discussions. "I think the sentiment in the community is there now more than it ever has been," he said. The absence of the Wilkie (a replica steamboat which served as a museum and reception hall before it was torn down by the city) is "a game changer," Peterson said. "That was a divisive issue that was kind of a problem for the community to move forward. Well, that's gone now, so let's move forward."
"I think one of the reasons I got elected was that people did like what I was talking about—doing something with the river front and Levee Park," Peterson said.
Past proposals for Levee Park never received funding. When asked how the project might be funded this time around, Peterson said he would have to wait and see what the committee wanted to do and how much it would cost before deciding how to fund it. When questioned further, Peterson said that grants, public-private partnerships, bonding, and a half-cent sales tax would be funding options should the city decide to pursue them in the future.
When asked if a bond or half-cent sales tax was politically feasible, Peterson said, "I have no idea. But I am sure that having a public discussion about this is a healthy thing."
While what will be proposed and how it could be funded is up in the air at this point, Peterson did say that making the park an enjoyable space "is going to cost money."
Pomeroy shared in an interview some of his ideas for how the committee should tackle the issue, saying he would like to see a "two-pronged" approach. The committee, he said, should go after funding for big-ticket items while simultaneously finding low-cost ways of drawing people to the park.
"Without going into what's happened in the past as far as committees and not a lot happening to the levee, I think sometimes you can go after big dollars, and if you do not do anything in the interim (while you're waiting for that money to arrive), if does not arrive, nothing gets done," he said.
"The railroad tracks interfere with people moving into the park in a safe manner," he continued. "We know that is a $1.5 million project to get it out, if you can even get it out. Certainly that needs to be looked at, but you cannot give up on the park, because that [rail yard] exists there."
Pomeroy said he would like to have more events down at the levee—such as the city's Earth Day event this April 22, or possibly car shows, music, farmers markets and other vendors—to get people to enjoy the park.
"In my opinion, if you start exciting people about the park, they are going to want more and that will excite us and get us moving to better beautification of the park and better funding of the park," Pomeroy said.
The Levee Park Committee will meet February 26 at 3 p.m. in the Wenonah Room in City Hall.