Next Saturday was going to be the big day for Levee Park. After a year of committee discussions and designers' work, bold new plans for the park that seek to reconnect the island city with the mighty Mississippi were to be presented to the public. However, it may be on hold a bit longer. At the end of last week, local leaders still have questions about what exactly the the designers' proposal is proposing. And, according to documents obtained by the Winona Post, growing tension between designers and the mayor's committee have stymied the project for months.
"Will we have the answers?" during the open house, asked Levee Park Committee member and US Fish and Wildlife Service Winona District Manager Mary Stefanski at the group's last meeting. Since receiving a draft proposal crafted by University of Minnesota (U of M) designers early this month, "We've had a million questions, because this is very open and we don't have the answers," she said, referring to unclear details in the plans, such as how a proposed floating dock would work, and how the committee can realize plans to replace part of the levee wall with removable flood gates.
A "Vision Plan" providing more explanation of the designs and what city leaders may consider satisfactory completion of the work designers were hired to do was received last Friday, almost a month late.
Local leaders agreed late last year to forgo an in-person presentation by consultants as part of a deal to preserve the project amid growing tensions, according to documents obtained by the Winona Post.
Designers spent a large portion of their nearly one-year tenure developing 'what if' scenarios for a postindustrial Winona. The scenarios sparked local controversy and led to tension between committee members and designers. Committee leaders ordered the designers to strike the scenarios from the plans, the designers asked for more money, contract negotiations ensued, and the project led the city manager to ask the mayor if it was time "to remove myself from local leadership." It all began with a few "what if" questions.
Tourism and industry scenarios, backlash
Landscape architects Matt Tucker and Mary Vogel of the University of Minnesota's (U of M) Center for Changing Landscapes were hired by the city last spring to guide the project. They agreed to take on the project for $15,000 a pittance compared to what private firms would charge, committee members argued and, if the committee acted quickly, Tucker and Vogel said they could secure a graduate assistant for the project at no extra cost. The committee did act quickly. A combination of private donations and city funds paid for Tucker, Vogel, and their graduate and other assistants.
In mid-October 2013 more than half-way through the timeline for the project Tucker and Vogel presented the committee with a draft presentation they intended to give at a long-anticipated public forum at the end of that month. The presentation was focused on scenario planning: using plausible 'what if' scenarios to provoke discussion and brainstorming. The three 'what if' scenarios included: declining manufacturing and rising tourism sectors, changes to climate and river levels that would decrease barge traffic and boost river recreation, and rising gas prices that would increase the need for walking and bicycling infrastructure.
Many community members balked at the implications of Tucker's scenarios. Tucker would later tell committee members that he thought the Winona Post misrepresented his scenarios and that "defamatory journalism" was the cause of the backlash. However, community leaders who had access to Tucker's scenario presentation without the filter of the Winona Post also had misgivings.
On October 21, City Manager Judy Bodway emailed Mayor Mark Peterson regarding Tucker and Vogel's draft presentation. "I have some concerns about the scenarios being presented," Bodway wrote. "Pitting manufacturing versus tourism, no more commercial use of the river. How practical are these for the future? Why are we not embracing all and blending these activities together for our future? You and I know that cultural activities do not fund themselves and the manufacturing community is a big supporter of those activities." She continued, concluding her message, "Why would we suggest this scenario?" She wrote that she did not "understand this proposed new community," and asked, "Is it time for me to remove myself from local leadership?" Peterson forwarded the email to Tucker and told the designer, "We should talk about this."
In an October 22 email, the lead city staff person for the Levee Park project, Parks and Recreation Community Development Director Chad Ubl, told Tucker that the city had received numerous calls from Port Authority members and business owners with concerns about the scenarios.
Among committee members, too, there was disagreement about the postindustrial themes of Tucker's scenarios. "This kind of sounds like manufacturing is never coming back at all," committee member and Winona County Economic and Sustainability Director Natalie Siderius said of the scenarios at a committee meeting in mid-October. "The trend is actually going the other way," she said. Others supported the tourism and manufacturing scenario.
That night, Tucker shared an abbreviated version of the scenario presentation with the City Council. After Tucker left, council members Paul Double, George Borzyskowski, and Michelle Alexander stressed the importance of barge traffic and manufacturing to Winona's future and Double called the idea that manufacturing was on the decline "hogwash."
The next day, Tucker wrote to Peterson, committee chair Frank Pomeroy, and committee vice chair and former city manager Eric Sorensen, saying that he was disappointed council members criticized his presentation after he left, rather than asking him about it, and that misconceptions drove negative responses to the 'what if' scenarios.
"It would seem that the Chamber has been busy," Tucker added. The Winona Chamber of Commerce criticized a previous presentation from Tucker that also discussed declining manufacturing employment.
Then, in that same week leading up to the forum, Tucker had a family emergency. He and the committee cancelled the open house and put the project on hold.
With sympathy for his family situation, Ubl wrote Tucker on October 25, telling Tucker that Peterson wanted to have a conference call with Tucker and Ubl "regarding the current 'fever' in Winona regarding Levee Park. We are committed to your process 100 percent, but have a few questions/suggestions on how to proceed."
With the project on hold, the committee spent the next few weeks countering the backlash from the scenarios. "We need to turn the conversation around NOW!" Sorensen wrote to fellow project leaders, before they submitted a letter to the editor explaining the intent of the scenarios.
In mid-November, committee leaders discussed meeting with Chamber of Commerce President Della Schmidt regarding the controversial scenarios. In emails, Tucker asked Peterson, Sorensen, Pomeroy, and Ubl, what they hoped to achieve in a meeting with Schmidt. Peterson responded in an email, "Della, as the Chamber president, represents an important segment of our business community. By talking with her I would hope that we can show her we respect and value her input and involvement in this endeavor. If she has concerns or issues I would rather have her express them privately rather than publicly. When your work is over and you have moved on we are all going to be here working hard to get support from the downtown businesses, festivals and arts groups, city council, city staff, the universities, the media, the average citizen, and, yes, the manufacturing folks. It's always easier to get someone to support you when they feel they are on the inside helping to make something happen. If we gain that much then I think meeting with her is worth your time."
Designers: committee needs to do more
In response to Peterson's email, Tucker wrote, "I'll be more black and white about the intent of my [earlier] email. What is REALLY important is the COMMITTEE starts to take on MORE ownership in the project so that when the University's scope of work is done in early 2014, the effect is the Committee is walking on its own with clear direction and focus."
Tucker said he, too, thought that meeting with people like Schmidt was crucial, but that doing so was the committee's role. He noted that he had originally suggested such "stakeholder meetings" be an ongoing part of the project. "So, respectfully, we get the importance of these meetings. It's the meetings in between by the committee with local stakeholders on an informal basis that don't appear to be happening with regularity or frequency."
It is the committee's task to be "building relationships of momentum and trust with stakeholders" through these meetings, Tucker said. "It's evident that the opposite has happened." He noted that only a handful of committee members came to promote the project at an event in the park that fall.
Tucker also said the committee failed to respond to criticism about the scenarios in the local community and local press, instead asking him to pen a response. He asked that "the members of the committee be more persistent in the face of outspoken local doubters and more actively engage in charting a course for the changes you have asked us to consider."
He added, to Peterson, that "I am sorry you feel that we will just 'move on' and leave the community to re-assemble the relationships. Clearly that is not our intent and I haven't made a career of helping communities change by jumping out when the fire gets hot. That is not my style, but if you think our work is doing more harm than good, then please let us know and we can cease the contract."
Committee: cut the scenarios
On November 26, with just over a month left in the designers' contract, Peterson, Pomeroy, Sorensen, and Ubl held a conference call with Tucker. They asked him to drop the scenarios declining barge traffic, declining manufacturing, and high gas prices and move on to designing the park itself and developing a plan for funding and permitting the project, work originally slated for completion by the end of 2013.
Tucker summarized the call in a memo to the full committee, stating that the committee leadership Peterson, Pomeroy, Sorensen, and Ubl directed him to forgo the scenarios because the scenarios "raised too many negative reactions from some in the community."
In the memo, Tucker stressed the "considerable research and labor" that had gone into developing the scenarios. The committee "would be losing nearly three months of work" and the designers would need to overhaul their plans for moving forward. He described at length the "diligent and in-depth" work the design team had conducted to date, including 300 hours spent on the scenarios. The scenarios came before the committee several times without negative reactions, Tucker wrote. He described the decision to cut the scenarios as a sudden change of heart.
"Given our work to date and support received, we were surprised and alarmed by this change in direction after months of work has been completed," he told the committee.
Tucker said that if the committee wanted to cull the scenarios, the design team would need more funding. "As this change in direction and schedule contradicts previous work approved to date and this would require additional work not due to the fault of the University, an additional services agreement will need to be prepared. This agreement, along with additional project fees and schedule, will need to be accepted prior to our preparation of new materials for the open house," he wrote.
As an alternative, Tucker offered to continue with the scenarios without additional fees.
In contractual negotiations via conference calls, meetings, and emails in December, Peterson, Pomeroy, Sorensen, and Ubl were able to work out a deal with Tucker, Vogel, and U of M administrators. The designers would skip the scenarios and complete designs by January 30. They would not be expected to present the designs and facilitate public engagement, and they would not receive extra fees. As of last week, the city had not yet formally accepted the work of the design team or paid them the final $5,000 remaining as part the contract.
In early January, Pomeroy emailed Tucker, inquiring about the progress of designs and asking if he and Vogel would come down to Winona to present their designs to the committee. Having the design team come down to present to the committee was not what was agreed upon, Tucker responded.
Ubl, who was included in the email exchange, advised Pomeroy, "Rethinking this
I think that having them present may not be the best idea (as you can tell from the tone of the email). I expect the recommendations will be clear. We have the intelligence in the room to analyze them. Finally, remember we do not make final payment until we are satisfied, so asking clarifying questions will be part of accepting work."
Scenarios still a part of new plan
Meanwhile, the great river still flows beneath the ice at Levee Park. Railroad tracks and the levee itself still divide the center of an old river town from its river. The designers' plan would change that. Reshaping the levee wall, replacing parts of it with flood gates, adding a floating dock and kayak ramp, and providing spaces for large performances are included in the proposal. The plan also includes many themes of declining industry and rising tourism that got the project into trouble last fall (see story page 1A).
The city received the designers' complete "Vision Plan" last Friday. However, plans for a public open house on Saturday, March 8, may be delayed. "We will postpone the open house/public forum until the committee is 100 percent familiar and comfortable with the final report," explained Ubl in a press release last Friday.
The committee is meeting on Tuesday, March 4, at 4 p.m. in the Misato Room on the third floor of city hall. The meeting is open to the public. Keep reading the Winona Post for more information.