Maybe the old swimming area at Latsch Island should be resurrected? Could a new development occur on the island, in the marina area, or on top of the former railroad bridge? Perhaps establishing a portion of Front Street beside Levee Park and constructing inviting landscaping would improve access to the park? As the Levee Park Committee started sifting through the details of public comments on the conceptual plan for the park and preparing recommendations for the City Council, it aired ideas for potential changes not included in the current conceptual plan.
Committee members discussed the possibility of constructing a new structure on Latsch Island; Chair Frank Pomeroy commented that a cafe could be a good addition.
Committee member Mike Kennedy said that there was “long-term potential” for Dick’s Marina and the former railroad swing bridge that juts halfway into the main channel. “We don’t own it, but I have to think it could be bought pretty cheap,” he said of the old swing bridge. The bridge’s owner once proposed building a restaurant on the structure, but the proposal was never realized.
Kennedy added that improvements could be made to the Dick’s Marina area, and the marina could be encouraged to rent canoes and kayaks. Pomeroy suggested that the city could rent boats at Latsch Island, as it does in Lake Park, but Parks and Recreation Director Chad Ubl was wary of the liability.
Committee member and City Councilwoman Pam Eyden said any structure would have to be temporary because the island is in the floodplain. If proper permitting can be secured, fill can be used to lift land out of the floodplain for development.
Eyden suggested that if the committee eliminates the kayak launch in Levee Park proposed by the conceptual plan, it should consider recommending a launch at Latsch Island. Citizens and committee members have expressed concerns about encouraging canoeists to launch into the fast-flowing main channel at Levee Park.
Eyden and Pomeroy both voiced interest in resurrecting the swimming area and bathhouse that once drew hundreds of Winonans to the island. “There’s only one place on the Upper Mississippi where there’s a public beach that allows and encourages swimming and that’s La Crosse,” Eyden pointed out. “They’re willing to go the whole nine yards, they test water quality so people are warned to get out, they have lifeguards, they have everything.” The committee discussed the liability issues associated with swimming areas. Almost regardless of how swimming areas are handled, there are liabilities, committee vice chair and former city manager Eric Sorensen said. Eyden said that being able to see people swimming and launching boats on Latsch Island from downtown would boost activity in both areas.
Kennedy and committee member Owen Warneke agreed that Latsch Island should be kept cleaner and better policed.
Committee member Jacob Nicklay said that Latsch Island should have a different identity than a formal city park. “It’s a little more wild and natural,” so recommendations for Latsch Island should be minimally invasive, he said.
The committee agree that renewing efforts to complete a riverfront bike trail is high on its list of recommendations. For years, bicycling advocates championed a bike path leading from Prairie Island to the Middle School, but because of problems securing rights-of-way from property owners and a lack of funding from the city the project was never realized.
Committee member and Winona National Bank CEO Jack Richter proposed a simple new vision for boosting connections between downtown and Levee Park. The entrances to the park from downtown look like dead ends, he said. Part of that is simply because of a lack of inviting landscaping and infrastructure, he said. Boulevard trees run down Main Street, but they stop at the railroad tracks with “nothing that suggests you can do anything other than turn around.” Signage directing people to the park and landscaping, like a line of boulevard trees that continue into the park, would do a lot to draw people in, he said. He called them “advertising” fixes, commenting, “some of this just seems like it’s marketing, advertising to draw you to the park, regardless of what happens [with the proposed] floodgates.”
Kennedy argued for development of a new section of Front Street alongside the park — that is, a street running just south of the rail yard. He also suggested developing a line of permanent shelters on the north edge of the municipal parking lot near the movie theater, an idea which grew out of recommendations by Farmers Market organizers. Sorensen proposed a new section of road that would connect Lafayette Street to the parking lot on the east end of Levee Park. He said the parking lot is currently underutilized and hard to access. The idea was first suggested by the owner of 111 Riverfront. The parking lot beside 111 Riverfront is often full. In the conceptual plan, the parking lot in Levee Park would be repaved with green space and an overlook.
The committee will present its recommendations for the park project to the City Council next month. In recent meetings, committee members have debated about how to handle recommendations that would require additional planning work or revisions of the park plan and whether to even make recommendations for specific design solutions outside of the current plan.
The committee spent little time discussing specific design ideas or giving hired designers specific direction before it completed the conceptual park plan. The plan was finished in an abbreviated time frame with less give-and-take from the committee than initially intended because designers’ family emergencies and debate over “what if” scenarios consumed much of the time intended for planning the park.