For years, Winona area business leaders have turned their gaze longingly to the interchange of Highway 43 and Interstate I-90 and imagined the potential for industry and commerce to grow where corn and beans sprout now. Two businesses secured new sites at the interchange in the last two months. If business leaders' dreams are realized, they may be the first of many more to come. Development at the interchange is wrapped in a tug-of-war between the city of Winona's hunger for land and Wilson Township's will to survive. An agreement limiting the city from further annexation of Wilson Township will expire next year, and city leaders say discussions of potential annexation will resume this year.
Breezee's RV Center recently relocated to 28059 County Road 12, between the interchange and the Rushford exit, one of the first significant retail developments in the area. Closer to the interchange itself, Riverland Trucking owners Mark Henderson, of Nodine, and John Brom, of Winona, purchased a seven-acre parcel directly behind the Wilson Town Hall. They said they plan to develop a small distribution and repair facility for their trucking business, with space for a couple loading docks and garage bays for repairing semi-trucks.
Is this the beginning of the much-talked-about development of the interchange? "It's starting to look that way," said Wilson Town Board Chair Leon Bowman. In recent years, the township revised its zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan to be more accommodating of development. Some township residents have argued that embracing development that does not need municipal sewer and water is the best way to ward off city annexation.
Years ago, Winona completely annexed Winona Township, and in 2005, annexed proposed subdivisions and other residential properties in the Wilson Township valleys south of the core city. The city also laid plans for annexing hundreds of acres of Wilson Township, further south on County Road 17 and on Highway 43 all the way to the interchange. The annexation would open up space for residential, commercial, and industrial development. Extending sewer and water lines to the area was estimated to cost $58 million. In interviews last year, Mayor Mark Peterson and City Manager Judy Bodway said that southern expansion was still a goal. In interviews last week, Bodway said it was a study, not a goal, but both agreed that the city will soon be discussing potential annexation with the township.
When asked if Breezee's and Riverland's new locations are the start of the development of the interchange, Winona City Council member Paul Double said, "I think it's inevitable."
Double did not think annexation and city sewer and water services are inevitable, though, or necessary. The idea that the land has to be annexed into the city of Winona gets in the way, he said. In the past, the "tremendous cost for us to bring water out there" has stopped the city from taking action, he said. However, the assumption that sewer and water is needed is a "falsehood," he argued. There are many opportunities for light manufacturing businesses that can operate without municipal sewer and water, he said.
Maybe it could remain in the township, but be supported with financial aid and marketing help from the Winona Port Authority, said Double. Even if it is not within the city limits, the employees of businesses at the interchange will live in Winona, shop in Winona, and send their kids to school in Winona, Double reasoned.
The township is trying to encourage light development. Bowman encouraged those with development ideas to talk to the township.
Double also argued that the Port Authority should buy and promote the large parcel owned by the Winona Area Industrial Development Association (WAIDA) at the interchange. WAIDA has a standing annexation request for the property that the city never acted upon. Double said he would support the expense of sending sewer and water lines to the interchange if a new business were to bring in hundreds of new jobs.
Peterson disagreed with Double on the necessity of sewer and water. "There are very few manufacturers that will build on land that doesn't have sewer and water available.
"If that's going to happen out there, I think sewer and water is going to have to be a part of it," he said. He acknowledged the financial problems that extending sewer and water lines entail. The city is still far from recouping the expense of sewer and water extensions to existing annexation areas.
Peterson said that he "hasn't really done anything" about the annexation issue yet as mayor, "but I think it's something that in the near future we need to start having conversations [about]."
Bodway stressed that the township would be included in conversations.
The possibility of annexation is "absolutely" on Bowman's mind. "I'm expecting the city to do what's right, if they have ambitions, and talking to us about it instead of just going ahead and doing what they have in the past," he said. "Hopefully they'll be a good neighbor and have conversations instead of slamming it down our throats," he added. Townships' legal options to fight off city annexation are often weak. Bowman noted that the city still has undeveloped land in Riverbend Industrial park, Garvin Heights, and Valley Oaks. "They've got the land. They don't need to eat us up yet," he said.