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Will tourism decide Winona's future? (09/29/2013)
By Chris Rogers
Will Winona's future revolve around composites or festivals? Industry built Winona, but its era is coming to a close, Levee Park designers told city leaders this summer. Tourism is rising to supplant manufacturing as a dominant economic force in Winona, they say. Not so, counter local officials. Manufacturing is on the rise and tourism is far from nipping at its heels, they assert.

Industries need not be pitted against each other except perhaps when vying for limited public funds. Winona will invest several million dollars in industrial infrastructure, including the harbor, Riverview Drive, and the airport, in the near future. After many past plans for Levee Park failed for lack of funding, the question of whether the public will support city spending on the park in 2014 looms large as the latest Levee Park Committee hones its ideas.

Doing so would be a wise investment, designers argue. At a July meeting of the park committee, University of Minnesota Landscape Architect Matt Tucker presented a graph of U.S. Census counts for Winona jobs by sector over the last 60 years. This shows manufacturing employment dropping and the arts, entertainment, and food industries growing to reach it," he said at a July meeting. Like many postindustrial cities across the Heartland, Tucker said, Winona is on the verge of an economic "paradigm shift" from manufacturing to tourism as the arts, entertainment, and food industries are often labeled. These changes are important to Levee Park conversations, Tucker explained, because "we can't design for what's happening today; we have to think about what's happening tomorrow." Industry has been a blessing for Winona and it would be wonderful if that blessing continues, he explained in a recent interview, but "I think there're some hard realities related to where we're at in terms in manufacturing."

Tell that to Behren's Manufacturing, CPI Binani, or any of the other businesses that have recently made, or will soon make, large investments in Winona expansions, said Winona Chamber of Commerce President Della Schmidt in an interview. Tourism is "absolutely not" going to surpass manufacturing, though it is a valued part of the local economy that does a lot for our community besides creating jobs, she commented. In recent years, area manufacturing has been growing, and state economists project that growth will continue, Schmidt added. Companies do not make significant investments without careful thought and planning, she continued; if Winona manufacturing were on the decline, Behren's and others would not be betting on growth.

Additionally, Schmidt pointed out, it is misleading to equate manufacturing to industry in general. There are a lot of large, industrial employers in Winona who are not considered manufacturers by the U.S. Census. Many Fastenal and ADM positions, for example, are classified as distribution or transportation jobs. The number of industrial jobs combined dwarf tourism employment, she said.

Furthermore, industrial jobs are more likely to be the kind that allow workers to support families, Schmidt continued, because they pay significantly more, on average, than tourism sector jobs and because machinists are more likely to spend decades in their trade than baristas.

"We're seeing growth in both sectors," said Winona Community Development Director Lucy McMartin. State figures for Winona show that both tourism and manufacturing have rebounded well since the recession: manufacturing jobs have increased by 10 percent and accommodation and food service jobs have increased by 25 percent in the last two years, McMartin noted. State economists also predict continued growth for both industries in Southeast Minnesota. The Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) predicts that in this decade manufacturing jobs will increase 3.8 percent and tourism jobs will increase 6.2 percent.

Whether manufacturing is growing or shrinking in the grand scheme, tourism has serious potential that should not be ignored, Tucker said. Outdoor recreation and culture are undercapitalized resources in Winona, he continued. "It's amazing the tremendous resources that are [in Winona], and there's not even a simple map" compiling all the places to launch a canoe, paddle, bike, and hike. "The point we're making is that there's an untapped resource here," he added.

A false choice?

Tucker and the committee's focus was not "manufacturing versus tourism," Assistant City Planner Carlos Espinosa said. "I think their message was, in the 21st century, in Winona, cultural, art, and leisure are increasing in importance." The point is, he added, "Winona's really got something going on" when it comes to culture and recreation. "If we're going to redesign Levee Park, we should be cognizant of that."

Aside from debating how to use public dollars, Winona need not decide between tourism and industry, experts agree. Tucker, Schmidt, McMartin, Espinosa, and Visit Winona Director Pat Mutter all pointed out that the same amenities that make Winona a great place to visit history, events, and the outdoors also make it great a place to live and work. Being located in a vibrant and beautiful community with a great quality of life makes it easier for industrial businesses to recruit and retain top-notch workers. "It's not an either/or," McMartin said. "It's not one at the expense of the other. It's that they're both important."

Industry is not bad for tourism either, leaders say. "We all need each other in town here," Mutter said. "Winona is successful because we have manufacturing in town." Winona industry is something Visit Winona is proud to share with visitors, she continued. Manufacturers "are part of Winona, and we talk about it."

"A lot of businesses bring business travel to the Winona area," Schmidt pointed out. Much of the spending of visitors who come for business conferences and events counts toward tourism sales, and supports those and other tourism-sector businesses. After all, business travelers want fun things to do while they are in town, Schmidt said.

Tucker and the Levee Park Committee have also been explicit that Winona industry is something they hope to celebrate at the park. Discussion about placing a historic locomotive at the rail yard adjacent to the park is one example of the committee's efforts to honor Winona's industrial history and work with its modern riverfront industries.

In past interviews, Mayor Mark Peterson made his position clear: Winona is and will be a full-service town with a mix of tourism, industry, education, health care, and more; that is what makes our economy strong. 


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