Will the Union Pacific Railroad (UP) give up its tracks to open up Levee Park? Levee Park Committee members met with UP officials last month to begin tackling what has been highlighted as the park's biggest challenge.
Wrought iron fences, crumbing asphalt, and twisting rail lines separate Levee Park from much of Winona's downtown. At times, engines chug past and parked train cars obscure the park. Improving access to the park by taking out the rails has been on the wish lists of various Levee Park committees going back for years. "Improve access" and "remove the rails" has been a common refrain on this committee, too. "It's truly a barrier to park utilization," said committee member Mike Kennedy.
Removing the UP tracks adjacent to the park has long been a goal for the city. Consultants hired by a previous city committee developed a $3.7 million plan that would have removed the storage tracks and kept one running track, but Winona's long history of discussing Levee Park renovations has never turned to action. Nevertheless, Winona's Levee Park Committee is looking to get UP on board with its hopes of taking out most or all of the tracks.
Committee chair Frank Pomeroy said that previous negotiations showed "that if the price was right there might be some movement." However, he said that the current committee's first meeting with UP was a very preliminary one, mostly touching base and going over the history of negotiations between the city and the railroad for the yard.
The conversation "was a surprisingly honest, back and forth communication," Kennedy said.
"We're continuing to talk," said UP Regional Operations Manager Josh Shaffer. He declined to comment specifically on what the railroad would be open to or what its interest are, but did say that the running line and serving the customers it connects to is important to UP.
Pomeroy and Kennedy expressed optimism that UP would be willing to give up its storage tracks near the park. According to Kennedy, UP said its rail yard at the park has not been used for two and a half years.
The regularly-used running track is another story. "They don't think it's a good idea to take that out, but can we satisfy those businesses some other way, like accessing it from the East End instead of accessing it from across the Levee [park entrance]?" Kennedy asked.
What he is talking about is the possibility of UP accessing its tracks east of Walnut Street using Canadian Pacific's (CP) spur that runs north-south on Wall Street. CP and UP have agreements for sharing other lines, but such an arrangement would require a new agreement between the competitors and would presumably make it more difficult and expensive for UP trains serving East End businesses to reach its large holding yards on Riverview Drive west of Huff Street.
While it would seem that UP would have little reason to agree to such an arrangement, Kennedy said, "I believe the city has more say than they have in the past, and part of that is […] that there are 20,000 people behind us in Winona that are truly interested in having this done. It's not just a person that wants this done, its a city that wants something done."
However, at last week's committee meeting Kennedy said he witnessed an engine go past the Levee Park entrance twice during last Saturday's Earth Day event. "It was interesting; it was the only time I ever saw it go all the way and come back without doing anything," he commented. "My opinion would be that it was a little bit of tour de force, to prove to people that the railroad was there and that it does get used and that it can operate safely," he said.
Winona Park and Recreation Director Chad Ubl responded that the engines often do their work east of the park, coming and going by the park without any cars attached.
If UP will not make a deal, there are ways of turning the railroad into a positive, Pomeroy pointed out. He is already pursuing one idea: bringing in an historic engine, the Winona & St. Peter #274, that served the Winona area in the late 1800s, to serve as an historic monument and railroad interpretative feature. Winona County Economic Development Authority Director and committee member Natalie Siderius summed up this tack of embracing the rails this way: "If we think creatively, a lot of things can become assets."
Conversations with UP may have been sidetracked by a change of leadership at Bay State Milling (BSM). BSM is one of the biggest East End customers served by UP rails and the city has been eager to get its support for the park. Former Bay State Milling Manager Mike Walsh was on the committee and supported the Levee Park project. However, Walsh was recently released from his position. Interim Manager Mike Long will join the committee.
In the meantime, plans are moving forward to bring four more big events to the park this year. Pomeroy reported that UP donated $1,500 to fund those events.
University of Minnesota landscape architects hired as consultants (see story page 1a) may lead the charge in continuing to feel out possibilities and sentiments among UP, CP, and BSM. While committee members have apparently been open in talking about their initial meeting with UP, at last week's committee meeting Kennedy recognized that the city may have a desire to be secretive and strategic about its dealings with the railroad. "There's open meeting laws that come into play," he said, "but there's also some strategic parts of this plan that will require meetings that are not open to the public. Actually we've already been involved in some of that already," he said of the meeting with Shaffer.