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Public gets a look at Levee plans (04/02/2014)
By Chris Rogers

     Photo by Chris Rogers

. Levee Park Committee member Tom Fassbender explained parts of the new park plan to David White at the Levee Park open house on Monday. Winonans shared a spectrum of opinions, and project leaders urged the public to comment on more than the proposed floodgates.

Supporters seemed to outnumber critics among the droves of Winonans at the public airing of the new Levee Park plan Monday evening. The Levee Park Committee presented conceptual designs developed by consultants, which propose replacing part of the levee wall with floodgates, creating a kayak launch, and replacing the concrete flood wall with sloping lawns. Project leaders provided some new information on the project's future and potential funding sources, and solicited comments. For many citizens, it was their first time seeing the full plan.

"There were a lot of good and interesting ideas," commented Peter Walsh, of Homer, in an interview at the event. "I think it is going to be difficult to prioritize what's important and what's feasible."

"Typically I'm a pretty conservative person, but this [project] can be the difference between a thriving downtown and a quiet downtown," said Steve Jorde, owner of Hardt's Music. "This vision here is really, really good. I would ask the members of this committee to think even bigger," he added. "We're only going to get one chance at this." With the festivals launched in the past decade and the new bridge project coming, "now is the time to push this thing. Make it big. Make it spectacular," he urged.

"You can do anything if you have enough money. How much money do we have to spend?" asked former City Council member Tim Breza. "What kind of commitment is the city going to make, and thus the taxpayer?" he continued. "During brainstorming you throw everything out on the table, but then you have to balance that with the budget," he added. This plan is only a first draft, but setting a budget is crucial to defining the scope of what can be done, he commented.

Other citizens voiced support for bicycle trails and activities for children in the park, and some questioned the practicality of canoeists and kayakers using Levee Park as a boat launch.

"What I like about the plan is that everything is on the table," said Dr. Colette Hyman, history professor at Winona State University. Hyman referred to the "brain drain" the number of college graduates who do not stay in or return to Winona and stated that the park project might help reverse that trend by further boosting quality of life in Winona and engendering economic development and opportunities for entrepreneurs.

"This is what Winona needs," agreed Brianna Segrest, the daughter of sculptor Lynette Power, who may be commissioned for artwork in the park. "This is the kind of thing to get people involved in Winona" instead of Winonans patronizing cultural activities in other cities and Winona losing business, visitors, and residents to La Crosse and elsewhere.

Defending the flood wall

In conversations with attendees and presentations on the plan, committee members appeared sensitive to fears that the proposed levee wall changes would inundate the island city.

Winona Park and Recreation Community Services Director Chad Ubl pointed out that the top of the sloped lawns, proposed to replace the flood wall, would be over a foot higher than the existing levee wall, and several committee members highlighted the use of floodgates at the Winona Marina and in other communities.

"I think [we would be] remiss if we only look at this plan and say, 'You're crazy to cut into that wall.' That's my only comment," Ubl told attendees. He added, "If you don't like the idea of the floodgates we need to know that, but there are a million things within this plan besides those floodgates."

"I like it except for the floodgate," said Scott Sherman, president of Winona Area Mountain Bikers, of the park plan. The floodgate concept "scares the hell out me as a homeowner and business owner," he added. In the weeks leading up to Monday's open house, several citizens expressed similar concerns.

David White, who manned the dike during the flood of 1965, said he was not afraid of a floodgate failing to hold back the river. "Engineers know how to do that these days," he commented. Other cities have installed removable flood walls, and floodgates are used at the Winona Marina. However, White said that the floodgate concept "doesn't seem practical from a cost standpoint."

If the flood wall changes are going to "make or break" the park plan if the park is going to be "stupendous" with those changes and lackluster without them, then "we've got to do it," Jorde said.

In response to public criticism of the floodgate concept earlier this month, committee members and the mayor have stressed that the ideas proposed in the park plan, as committee member Mike Kennedy put it, "are not our recommendations; these are recommendations that we paid for." During its nine months of work with consultants, the committee spent little time discussing specific design ideas or giving designers specific direction. Ubl explained that "there were no boundaries" and the committee did not put the consultants into a box.

Janice Hoeschler praised the park plan, but critiqued the open house format, which did not allow for group discussion or group questions after the formal presentation. She noted that hearing what others are thinking and saying about the plan is valuable and wondered why committee members did not take questions while everyone was gathered for the presentation.

In meetings at which they planned for the event, the committee expressed concerns about negative comments, and opted to discourage group discussion following the presentation and direct event goers to make written comments and ask questions in one-on-one conversations with committee members.

Breza said there should have been more give and take at the open house. "People should hear about other ideas in real time," he said.

Funding and the path to construction

Completing the Levee Park project could take ten years, said Ubl. The permitting process required for any changes to the flood wall alone is a multiyear process, and construction is likely to be completed in phases, project leaders reported.

After Monday's open house, the committee plans to revise the conceptual plan, possibly requiring additional consultant work, and then seek approval from the City Council of the conceptual plan. The city intends to hire engineers to prepare construction documents and seek any necessary permits. Then the committee would solicit another round of public input before seeking final approval from the City Council and moving forward with construction. Those final steps could start as late as 2018, Ubl suggested.

Winona County staff, including Planning and Environmental Services Director Jason Gilman and Economic and Sustainability Director Natalie Siderius, prepared new information on the spectrum of potential funding sources for a project like Levee Park. The range of potential funding sources listed include public funding such as city bonding, a special tax levy, or proceeds from real estate sales; revenue generators such as parking fees, food and beverage sales or fees, or event fees; and private funding such as corporate sponsorship and private donations. There has been no public discussion to date on how these funding options could be applied to the Levee Park project.

"It's taken a long time to get here, but this is just the beginning," Walsh said of the project.

"I would hope that people have multiple opportunities to provide their input as the process goes along," said Breza.

"Keep listening to the public," agreed Larry Laber in his words of advice to the committee. "They're the ones who are going to pay for it." 


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