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Multi-million dollar building in Levee Park? (01/26/2014)
By Chris Rogers

Architect added to committee

Will the city of Winona's plan for redeveloping Levee Park involve four walls and a roof? Specific plans for a building in the park have not been discussed at open meetings, but building architects Owen Warneke and Jacob Nicklay were added to the Levee Park Committee last week, and committee members asked pointed questions about where a building could be sited. Committee members also indicated downtown parking lots are potential sites for a structure.

Warneke explained in an interview that he and Nicklay are willing to provide preliminary designs and cost estimates for a building without charge. "If discussions steers toward a building, we could help out with that," Warneke said.

"We may have to back away from [the committee], if we want to bid on [a building project], to keep the process fair and transparent," Nicklay commented. "Our goal is really just to be active and contributing community members." Warneke added, "It's not necessarily a business opportunity for us, but we'd like to see something good happen down there."

Warneke was appointed after approaching Mayor Mark Peterson with an offer to serve on the committee. Peterson and Warneke both said that a building in the park was never explicitly discussed; however, Peterson explained that Warneke told him "it might be a good time to bring someone with their skills and add them to the committee."

In a phone interview, Committee Chair Frank Pomeroy said that questions about Warneke's involvement on the committee should be directed to the mayor and declined to comment on any potential building plans.

During a presentation on underground utilities within the park by Public Works Director Keith Nelson, Pomeroy asked, "What areas would be build-able areas in the Levee [Park]?" Pomeroy asked specifically where footings for a structure could be placed. The committee noted that the Wilkie site was one such area.

In a September meeting held without public notice, the committee discussed constructing a Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Visitor's Center in the park or nearby. FWS Winona District Manager Mary Stefanski was present at that meeting. Winona County Planning and Environmental Services Director Jason Gilman advocated for "anchor destinations that bring regular traffic" like a FWS center that could also host conferences and meetings.

It is hardly the first time a building in Levee Park has been proposed.

In the decades of committees, designs, and debates centered on the park three different multimillion interpretative centers were proposed. A $7 million FWS center, a $3 million center with a waterfall involving the Winona County Historical Society, and a replica riverboat museum at the former Wilkie site have all been proposed in the park.

The sort of multi-use building that Gilman referred to in his comments in the closed September meeting is not an new idea, either. In 2007, city officials met privately with design firm representatives to tour Levee Park and several other downtown locations as potential sites of a $30 million performing arts and convention center. Other committee members indicated that such a multi-use or events center may be of interest.

Warneke indicated that in addition to the Wilkie site, the parking lot on the east end of the park, areas to the west of the park near the bridge, and the municipal parking lot behind the Winona Seven movie theater are all potential building sites. That parking lot was also considered as part of the $30 million convention center site.

This summer, University of Minnesota (U of M) designers hired for the park redesign project suggested that the city has lots of space near the riverfront taken up by parking lots and hinted at the redevelopment opportunities for those spaces.

Peterson said Wednesday he was not aware of any discussions of substantial buildings in Levee Park and that he would be privy to such discussions.

Stefanski said that the FWS is still interested in a site near the river, and that while she was in discussion with various property owners this year about opportunities for relocation including the downtown condominium next to Levee Park there were not currently conversations about building a center for the FWS in the park. She said that at the moment, the federal government is unlikely to fund such construction; however, the FWS could rent a building.

Peterson and Stefanski both said they would be surprised if plans for the park included a true building, but that a kiosk, pavilion, or shelter may be in the works.

In its one-year existence, Peterson's Levee Park Committee has not hashed out in open meetings what, specifically, it would like to see in Levee Park plans. However, committee members, the mayor, and/or designers have met privately on several occasions including the September meeting, and have sent email recommendations to the designers.

U of M designers are expected to present their final conceptual design for the park next week. A public forum on the design has been tentatively scheduled for Saturday, February 22, at the Winona County History Center.

Funding discussed; Corps may restrict plans

For the first time ever, the Levee Park Committee formally discussed funding possibilities earlier this month. The rough plan envisions a mix of city funding, grants, and private donations. City bonding was specifically discussed. Most bonding would require a voter referendum. However, the City Council could fund a building to be paid back through rent, for example, without voter approval. The city of Winona Port Authority could use its industrial development powers to bond without voter approval in areas west of the park that are part of an Industrial Development District including the areas referenced by Warneke or it could extend the Industrial Development District boundaries to include the park.

Few specific grants were discussed. Committee members informally agreed on plans to garner private support for the park, including local institutions and businesses that might sponsor specific aspects of the park. For example, Pomeroy mentioned the concept of having Biesanz Stone benches in the park.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may have a deciding role to play in what is possible in the park. Nelson indicated that the corps would likely bar any changes within 15 feet of the Levee wall. In fact, many of the trees in the park need to be removed, he said. Even keeping garden plantings near the wall may be a small victory. There is a process to apply for variances from normal restrictions, but it would likely take over a year, Nelson indicated. In general, he said, the Corps has been more strict about Levee rules since Hurricane Katrina.

Keep reading the Winona Post for more on Levee Park. 


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