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Under the bridge: will displaced businesses stay (08/25/2013)
By Chris Rogers
Some of the largest and most valuable commercial businesses in central Winona are about to pack up shop. Where, or whether, they will unpack remains to be seen. The new Interstate Bridge will displace nearly all of the properties immediately west of the existing bridge, including Severson's Sinclair Gas Station, the AmericInn, and Dahl Chevrolet, Buick, GMC. The owners, employees, customers, competitors, business leaders, and city officials are all wondering: Will they relocate in Winona?

"We're looking for a location and we have some ideas," Tom Severson said of his children's downtown Sinclair gas station. But "until we get an offer from [the state], it's awful hard to look," Severson explained. "And a location is awful hard to come by," he added. Severson said there are few places that would be a comparable replacement for their location at Second and Huff streets, which is patronized by drivers coming and going from Riverview Drive as well as from downtown.

The Seversons are not alone in their difficulty in finding a place to relocate. "That's hard to see go because it's been there forever," a citizen said of the downtown car dealership now owned by Dahl. "It's really good visibility for them."

The AmericInn's large, riverfront locale is rare in Winona and likely to be hard to replace, though some have suggested that the condominium formerly owned by Dave McNally might be a good location for a motel.

"That's a site, if anyone wants to purchase it," said Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) Right-of-Way Engineer Mark Trogstad-Isaacson, when asked if his department, which attempts to relocate businesses, had considered the condominium. Mn/DOT is required by law to pay displaced property owners enough to afford to relocate in the community, if possible. However, there are limitations to that requirement, he said. "We give enough to purchase a replacement spot in the community. Any upgrades, that's their cost," he said.

For some businesses, relocation might be somewhat of a downgrade. "We're not obligated to replace them on the river," Trogstad-Isaacson said of the AmericInn. Mn/DOT has eyed locations on Highway 61 for the hotel, he said. State law requires relocation sites to be "reasonably suitable."

Severson said that his family has considered purchasing the YMCA property, should the YMCA decide to relocate. However, the YMCA is not cheap, and converting it into a gas station would not be cheap either. "The indication is that they're not going to give us enough money to do that," Severson said of preliminary conversations with Mn/DOT.

YMCA Executive Director Derek Madsen and recently retired Executive Director Andy Blomsness said that relocating the YMCA is "an active conversation" among the YMCA leadership and members. There are many reasons to consider a new YMCA building, Madsen and Blomsness said, but the bridge project may make crossing the street more dangerous for YMCA members and will reduce the organization's already limited parking, factors that spurred the organization to consider relocation sooner rather than later.

If the YMCA does not move in the near future, Madsen said that he is considering trying to purchase the properties directly north of the YMCA to become a parking lot. Those are properties which will be bought or seized by Mn/DOT for construction and then reopened to public use or development. There is a waiting list for buying them, however. The original owners have the right of first refusal when construction is finished, then the city has the option to buy them for one dollar apiece to use as parkland, a concept which has excited many city officials and the Levee Park committee.

If the Seversons cannot find a new location that will support their business on their budget, they may face a difficult decision. "We've got a lot of loyal customers. We really appreciate them and we don't want to give them up," but Mn/DOT may not pay enough to replace what we have now, Severson said.

The coming months of offers, counteroffers, and negotiations may determine whether Winona will lose iconic businesses and substantial tax dollars, or if the island city will see a reshuffling of major properties.

Mn/DOT officials said that the agency has budgeted $12 million to $20 million for property acquisition, far over the roughly $4 million assessed value of the properties in the path of the bridge.

Trogstad-Isaacson said that Mn/DOT is currently having its property appraisals vetted and plans to make offers next month. If Mn/DOT and the property owners fail to reach a buyout deal, the agency will begin eminent domain proceedings in district court.

Representatives of Dahl Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, and the AmericInn could not be reached for comment. 


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