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New bridge, new Levee Park? (07/28/2013)
By Chris Rogers

Photo by Chris Rogers
     Last month, the Levee Park Committee strolled down its namesake. If the latest and boldest dreams of the committee and its designers come true, the park and its economic impact could be increased.
Forget flower planters. Dreams for Winona's Levee Park just got much bigger. If discussion turns to action, the vision espoused by designers could cause physical changes to radiate through much of the island city. Designers imagine Levee Park could more than double in size, wrapping under the Interstate bridges and encompassing the four blocks west of the new bridge planned for construction in the coming years. They say that manufacturing is on the decline, while tourism-linked industries are growing. A park that brings boats, bikes, pedestrians, the arts, and outdoor recreation to the city's riverine epicenter could become a new economic driver for the community, according to designers.

In their latest meeting with the city's Levee Park Redevelopment Committee, landscape architects, Dr. Matt Tucker and Dr. Mary Vogel of the University of Minnesota, and two research assistants presented, in broad strokes, a vision for the park.

Industry, tourism, and

river town economics

The designers showed the committee a graph with two lines, which seemed about to cross. The first line represented a decline in the number of manufacturing jobs in Winona, and the second represented a rising entertainment, recreation, lodging, and food workforce. The graph was based on employment data from the U.S. Census, they explained. The Winona Post was unable to confirm all the data points Tucker drew from decades of census material before the newspaper went to press. However, the most recent estimates from the American Community Survey, a U.S. Census Bureau project, match Tucker's figures: currently, lodging, recreation, food, and entertainment account for about 13 percent of Winona jobs; manufacturing jobs account for 16 percent. Census Bureau reports indicate a general trend of decreasing manufacturing jobs in Winona.

However, on average, manufacturing jobs pay far more than tourism industry jobs, according to the Census reports. Also, there are several manufacturers who have recently expanded or are planning expansions to their Winona facilities.

Tucker hopes to mimic the success of postindustrial cities that have converted shipping piers into promenades and brownfield sites into greenspace. He and Vogel hope that the Levee Park project can be more than a simple beautification, but rather an economic and cultural redefinition of Winona.

It is more than Levee Park, Tucker said, it is about "the identity of Winona" and "the economic prosperity of Winona."

"If we want to help prepare Winona for the 21st century, we need to change how they look at it," Vogel said of the river's economic potential. Catch the rising tide of tourism by creating a space for festivals, tourism, and outdoor recreation at the river, they urged.

"Everybody has the name 'river' attached to what they do," Levee Park Committee Chairman Frank Pomeroy said of downtown shops and local festivals. "Now it's the time to make that connection real."

It is unclear what area businesses and their supporters will make of Tucker and Vogel's message. City of Winona Community Development Director Lucy McMartin did not return a call for comment, but sent a statement saying that industry, arts, and recreation are all important parts of Winona's economy. Winona County Environmental Services and Planning Director and Levee Park Committee member Jason Gilman could not be reached for comment before the Winona Post went to press.

The fact that Winona is poised to spend over a million dollars on its airport to attract and keep businesses, and has plans to spend tens of millions to expand available industrial land might suggest a different outlook on Winona's economic future.

In a meeting with the Minnesota Department of Transportation Waterways Division, Winona Port Authority officials expressed concerns about "conflicting land uses." Winona Development Coordinator Myron White lamented the conversion of portions of the Mississippi River in St. Paul to parkland. Recreation uses, he said, are competing with industry's claim to the river as a waterway.

You can have both tourism and industry on the river, Mayor Mark Peterson said. "It's not an either/or." He added, "I'm a firm believer in tourism and the possibilities it has for Winona, but we're still going to be a full-service city. We're not going to be just a tourism city or a manufacturing city." Vogel and Tucker said they envision a park that celebrates trains, barges, and the long history of Winona's industrial riverfront.

A new bridge, a new park?

There are a lot of "ifs," but designers presented an idea that would change the face of Levee Park, downtown Winona, and the whole riverfront. They asked, what if the open space left behind after the construction of the new bridge could become an extension of Levee Park? Tucker flashed a simulated vision from the corner of Fourth and Huff streets looking at four blocks of greenspace stretching from Huff Street to the bridge, from Fourth Street to the river.

"Just think about the connection to Prairie Island," said Winona National Bank CEO and committee member Jack Richter. Think about the connection to Latsch Island, Aghaming Park, and the Great River Bike Trail, said committee member Mike Kennedy. That would solve the problem tourists encounter of finding Levee Park, and would help tie it into downtown, others commented.

"What a way to start bringing more people into the community," Pomeroy said.

"I got really excited thinking about the possibilities," Peterson added.

The city already owns the land between the existing park and the bridge. Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) project leaders reportedly told city officials that Mn/DOT would be willing to sell back properties acquired for the new bridge construction to the city for a dollar a lot, if they were to go to a public use.

Previously, the committee had discussed greenspace under the new bridge, but the new vision is far more expansive.

However, there are two big caveats. First, Mn/DOT has yet to announce plans for property acquisition, but comments by Mn/DOT staff suggest that it is unlikely that they will acquire the entirety of the four blocks west of the bridge. Second, property owners have the right to buy back their property before Mn/DOT can sell it to anyone else, including the city.

Tucker also suggested that pedestrians and bicyclists could "get off that new bridge a little sooner" than Fourth Street. Tucker suggested a spiraling bike path the descends from the bridge just over the levee or perhaps an elevator that carries pedestrians from the river to the bridge level. When asked if working with Mn/DOT on such an intensive engineering feat at this stage in the project was feasible, Tucker said that the concept was too unformed to say, but he suggested that it could be added after the bridge is finished.

Pedestrians, bikes, and boats

Tucker and Vogel proposed a bold tack on the much-talked-about concept of improving connections to the park. They flashed a map that showed dedicated pedestrian and bike paths carrying visitors and locals to Levee Park from as far away as Mankato Avenue and Highway 61 and Huff Street and Highway 61. Research Assistant Erin Garnaas-Holmes proposed pedestrian promenades stretching from the river into downtown, perhaps to Winona State University's campus.

The designers also discussed improved connections for boaters, motorized and otherwise. Pomeroy mentioned plans to consider a new mooring area for motor boats as well as a place to launch canoes and kayaks. The space west of the new bridge could provide a spot for a visitors center, such as the long-discussed idea of a new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Interpretative Center at the river.

Will Winona fund it?

Just a couple of months after the committee's first meeting, City Council members expressed resistance to public spending for the park. For decades, Levee Park committees have convened and dreamed big. There are years of Levee Park meetings that predate the current committee. Old plans for redeveloping Levee Park are still on file, but that is as far as they got. Every time committees developed a vision for improving the park, the political will to fund them never materialized, and, thus, neither did the visions.

"We keep coming up with the problem: cost, cost, cost," Kennedy said. "It disarms us when we want to dream, to brainstorm, to think about what we would like, not what we must settle for."

Developing concepts and then determining price tags for various options was always the committee's plan. Let us stick to it, Kennedy said.

Peterson and Pomeroy agreed, but noted that a combination of public and private funding was always part of the plan. Fundraising efforts are gearing up, Pomeroy said.

How those who control the purse strings of public and private coffers will respond to the call for Levee Park rejuvenation remains to seen. 


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