The phrase "downtown revitalization" has been buzzing around city hall, the Chamber of Commerce, and local storefronts. Ever since the rise of shopping and retail development on the city's fringes, reviving downtown Winona has been a subject of public conversation. Enlivening Levee Park and downtown Winona was a major piece of Mayor Mark Peterson's successful campaign last fall. Bringing people into downtown is a primary goal for the city's newest Levee Park committee. Now, a new program seeks to unify and promote downtown business.
Photo By CHRIS ROGERS
Volunteering for the Winona Main Street Program, Joe Davis (left) of Peerless Chain and recent Winona Senior High School graduates Isaiah Sorvaag (center) and Kennedy Emerson (right) helped revamp landscaping around the parking lot on Third and Center streets. The beautification project was the first undertaken by the program, which hopes to draw more activity to downtown Winona.
The Main Street Program, led by the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce and downtown business owners, is part of a nationwide movement that attempts to improve downtown business districts while preserving their historic character. The Winona Main Street Program seeks to organize, promote, and beautify the district. The program has begun to take concrete steps toward those goals. Last month, volunteers refreshed downtown landscaping. The program will hold its first event for shoppers next month. Its goal is a "Historic Downtown Winona being the heart of our community and region—a vibrant hub of commerce, entertainment, recreation, and residential life."
Even before Peterson and the Main Street Program, downtown had been picking up momentum, downtown business owners said, but the district faces serious challenges.
Downtown gaining momentum
"For the last year or two, it seems like there is a revitalization going on," said Darryl Lanz, owner of Chapter Two Books, mentioning the several new businesses that have sprung up downtown in recent years. Lanz's storefront itself is a recent addition to the 100 block of West Third Street. Lanz mentioned Pipe Dreams, Mr. Groovy's, Broken World Records, the Men's Exchange, Say Cheese, and other storefronts in addition to his that have opened in the last couple of years.
"There's something happening," Lanz said. "The more you can bring to downtown, the better it is for all of us [downtown businesses]."
"This is the largest number of businesses opening in a short period of time that I've seen since I've been downtown," concurred Amy Jo Marks, who opened Blooming Grounds Cafe 10 years ago. "We're in a growing stage right now."
There is a contingent of community-oriented shoppers who recognize "it's not always about volume," Marks added. "We have been so into big box stores, but people are starting to appreciate a unique shopping experience. People are starting to realize it's not just how much you bought for how little."
Additionally, the many festivals and events that have sprouted and grown over the last ten years have brought a great deal of new business to downtown, Marks noted.
"I've seen our downtown really bottom out, and I've seen it coming back," Mayor Peterson said in an interview with the Winona Post. "People who visit are just absolutely fascinated by our community. They're jealous of what we have," he added.
"I'm excited Della [Schmidt] went ahead with this," said Steve Jorde of Hardt's Music. Chamber of Commerce Director Della Schmidt has had aiding downtown in her sights since she came to Winona, he said. "There is probably never a perfect time for something like this, but we have momentum in the community." Jorde pointed out that there are over 60 different businesses downtown — service industries of all types, restaurants, and retail stores. "That's impressive to me," he added. "We definitely have more businesses in the last few years. There are a lot of young people who are passionate about what they want to do." Jorde and his wife have run Hardt's Music for decades, and are now celebrating the store's 100th year of business. Jorde said he remembers "better times and worse times," recalling a time when downtown was the hub of commercial activity for residents, the decline of downtowns across the country, and urban renewal projects that leveled buildings across the street from his store.
Hardt's Music is a model for the sort of aesthetic improvements the Main Street Program would like to encourage. For years, the upper section of the dilapidated storefront had been covered with aluminum sheet metal. Three years ago, Jorde tore down the aluminum and spent $80,000 to renovate the exterior to National Historic Register standards, a program that provides low-interest financing for such projects. The store received a commendation from the City of Winona Historic Preservation Commission for the work. As a conservative, Jorde required some convincing to take taking advantage of a government program, but now he is proud of his storefront. Attractive storefronts benefit the whole area, he pointed out, saying he was glad to make that investment in the downtown community.
Future of landmark businesses in question
When asked where downtown is headed, Jorde sighed. "It's so complicated; the longer you've been doing it, the more complicated it gets." He continued, "My biggest concern is: is downtown going to be like this 10 years from now, or are we going to have a situation where a lot of stores are owned by people who are retiring, and they aren't able to perpetuate themselves?"
Jorde rattled off a list of service and retail stores that have been fixtures in downtown for decades, but whose aging owners do not have children or employees poised to take over the business. Without young people willing to take over businesses, and older owners willing to make the transition financially feasible, downtown may soon see anchor stores close up shop in droves, Jorde explained. "When we bought the store from the Hardts they made that happen for us, you know what I mean?" he said, alluding to generous, patient financing. "How many people are willing to finance people for a contract for deed for a half-million dollars worth of stuff?" he asked. In order for such downtown businesses to stay open, it will require passionate young people to commit themselves and their finances, and "business owners who want it as much as the young people," Jorde said.
What does downtown need?
When asked what downtown needed, Lanz said the district needs something to attract people to the area. "We need major, major draws," agreed Jorde. That could be anything from a department store to fine dining, he said.
"We need hotels downtown," Marks stated. She added that having a hotel and mid- to higher-end residences downtown that target professionals, as opposed to lower-end student housing would do a lot. She mentioned the condominium project, where the city seems to be following those recommendations (see story page 5a ), but Marks stressed the number of empty second floors downtown that could be converted into nice apartments.
In an interview with the Winona Post, Mayor Peterson expressed the same view. "I would very much like to see more people living downtown and I hope we can maintain a motel in the downtown area." The only lodging currently available downtown, the AmericInn, is expected to be demolished to make way for the new Interstate bridge.
When asked whether concepts for new development — such as the hotel/convention center/basketball arena detailed on a wish-list item for the riverfront in the city's comprehensive plan — fit into goals of historic preservation, Marks said, "I'm okay with new development as long as it fits in with the existing historic downtown. When you do too much and don't tie it in you end up with an awkward-looking area."
Marks and Peterson both said having a Levee Park that draws people to the riverfront and connects the river and downtown would be a key step in revitalizing downtown. The Main Street Program, too, has highlighted Levee Park and is fostering connections to the river as integral to the success of downtown. Peterson also pointed to bike paths, signage, and advertising as key steps to his vision of a strong downtown.
Jorde said that while aesthetics, attractions, and ownership transitions are key to downtown's success, the community needs to support downtown businesses in order for them to survive. "Loyalty does not exist anymore," Jorde said. "I guess you don't know what you've got till it's gone."
Marks agreed that the downtown businesses needed community support. "It's downtown businesses' responsibility to give people a reason to come downtown, it's the Main Street Program's responsibility to make people want to open businesses downtown, and it's the community's responsibility to support downtown businesses."
Spending money at local businesses benefits the entire community, she said. "People need to understand that when you lose those sales tax dollars [to online businesses], it's not good for your community." Local spending supports children's education, maintains roads, and supports local charities, she said.
"Downtown is Winona," Peterson told the Winona Post. "It's the neighborhoods, too, but it's not Highway 61. The identity of the community is in the downtown area. Our connection with the river really is only in the downtown area. This is where our past is and our heritage is."