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Levee Park (05/05/2013)
By Frances Edstrom


I am usually an optimistic person. I look on the bright side. I have faith in human resources.

However — you knew that was coming — I am experiencing some rather strong feelings of fruitlessness about the outcome of yet another Levee Park revitalization committee. I have not been at any of the committee’s meetings. I do not doubt the commitment that committee members have to come out of the process with a workable plan. I do not doubt the good intentions and intelligence with which the mayor, the committee members, its chairs, and the City Council are approaching the perennial problem of dealing with a concrete dike that for over 40 years has protected us from the ravages of the floodwaters of the Mississippi River.

Other committees, practically from the moment the dike was built, have approached the problem the dike and the erstwhile park represent for Winona, and particularly its downtown. They were all well-intentioned.

What I see happening, however, is that the road to an ugly, useless, soul-draining Levee Park is paved with good intentions, while what we need is good planning.

Back in the 1970s, there was a plan afoot — which resurfaced briefly every ten years or so, and the ghost of which haunts the current Levee Park committee — to build an interpretive center at the foot of Main Street. The Wilkie Steamboat replica would be the jewel around which the center would sit. The center would be a resource for the study of the river and all its facets.

Enter politics and the reality that when the planning for the center began, there was federal grant money available for such things, which quickly evaporated as such funds do. What followed was the typical local government and “movers and shakers” shaking down the public for funds, which were scarce. The outcome was a steamboat replica that was well-intended, but not well-planned. It turned out to be unsuitable for much of anything, and languished before its death rattle was heard down here on Second Street.

The City of Winona Comprehensive Plan, dated 2007, included a rough plan for a conference/performing arts center to be built about where the movie theater parking lot now stands. It would connect to the Levee via a pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks. I imagine the performing arts center component was a reaction to the birth of the Great River Shakespeare Festival here in 2004.

It will soon be time for another Comprehensive Plan to be drafted, and yet…

In the meantime, our waterfront, which presents problems from the Winona Port to the industrial areas of East Winona, has been squandered. Parts of wide-open land have been used for haphazard commercial development, with no regard to incorporating that into any cohesive plan. In stark contrast, the Minnesota Marine Art Museum sits as a lone example of how our land could be used successfully and beautifully.

The city rushed to spot zone a portion of the riverfront to accommodate an unfortunately failed condominium development on the riverfront. Now, the city is scrambling to undo its misstep, giving the impression of favoring one developer over another (although the identity of the new developer is not yet public).

Where is the plan in all this? Why has it not been incorporated into planning for the riverfront?

Other organizations, governmental and not, do real planning. When Winona State University wanted to build a new dormitory complex, or a science hall, or a wellness center, it was part of a plan that was followed with success. On the private side of the coin, Saint Mary’s University has done the same thing. Each institution has created a beautiful cohesive whole that enhances Winona.

The City of Winona needs to follow that example, instead of jumping willy-nilly from idea to idea, with the result being an “industrial” park, or “technology” park, or “retail” park, a dearth of buildable land, a downtown skeletonized, and a sterile riverfront.

Unless the city planning and development departments are forced by their bosses — the mayor and City Council and by extension the citizens of Winona — to actually buy in to the plan that the Levee Park Committee proposes, any plan, no matter how brilliant, will suffer the same fate as those of the past. It takes more than our elected officials. It takes the bureaucrats who actually run the city to bring any project to a successful conclusion. If they don’t want it, we’re not going to get it. In order for that to happen, however, the bureaucrats must be required to be more open and forthcoming about their own plans, inclinations, vision, and willingness to do the work. So far, they aren’t.

Let’s see what happens.  


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