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Downtown fire recovery continues (07/02/2014)
By Chris Rogers

     . Photo by Chris Rogers

Last week, Jim Kieffer and Terry Kautz peeled back plaster from the east wall of the Off Center Apartments building in downtown Winona. Nine months after a downtown fire destroyed neighboring buildings and damaged Blooming Grounds Cafe, the restaurant reopened this weekend.

Nine and a half months after a catastrophic fire destroyed three downtown Winona buildings and seriously damaged others, one of the last businesses to rebound is open for business again, external repairs are continuing for others, and plans are being laid to redevelop the empty lots the fire left behind. Blooming Grounds Cafe reopened its doors last weekend and, for the first time, tapped kegs and uncorked bottles and served light evening courses in a new dining room. The cafe expanded into the space formerly occupied by Pretty Things boutique, which went out of business.

From boom lifts far above Third Street, contractors pealed back plaster from the east-facing bricks of Winona Property Management's Off Center building. Repairs to that structure, including sandblasting, tuck pointing, and brickwork, are scheduled to be completed by mid-August. Replacing a section of brick on the building's southeast corner that was accidentally destroyed during the demolition of neighboring buildings will cost $8,000, owner Mike Alexander said. Gutting and renovating the smoke-damaged apartments was a major task, he said. He was happy that State Farm Insurance settled on a payment that provided enough money to complete the project. Now, tenants once again fill the building's upper floors.

Alexander purchased the former Brosnahan Law Firm site, which, for now, will be used for parking for the apartments, Alexander said. Asked if he had other, future plans for the space, he said, "We have dreams." The agents at Alexander's realty business, Winona Real Estate, will part ways with their former officemates at Winona Property Management, also owned by Alexander, and move into new offices in the rear of Blooming Grounds' new dining room.

Across the empty lot from Blooming Grounds, a new roof and overhauled interiors were also finished this spring for Brent Nelson's Pipe Dream Toys and for the neighboring properties: Integrative Health and the space formerly occupied by Winona Garden Chinese Restaurant. Nelson's business was only closed for a few weeks, but managing the logistics of renovations after the fire has been an ordeal, he said.

After the fire, rehabilitating Blooming Grounds was "dead in the water for a long time," said manager Sheree Haslemore. Everything was on hold until January, while sprinklers were replaced, she explained. "It's really been in the last month that [the renovation] has taken shape." Some equipment was salvaged, but the espresso machine did not make it. Owner Amy Jo Marks tried. The elaborate coffee maker was sent to the cafe's coffee equipment service, but the equipment handling business subsequently suffered a fire of its own. After going through two fires, the machine was a total loss.

"I was in disbelief," Haslemore said. "How likely is that for such an integral piece of equipment?" A shiny new espresso maker occupies the counter now.

Winona Islamic Center Imam Hamid Quraishi said the Islamic Center is no closer to making a decision on whether to rebuild at its former site or sell the space and find another permanent location. Immediately after the fire, the group had expressed a strong interest in rebuilding, but in an interview last week, he said that the organization has not "pinned down" whether it will rebuild or permanently relocate. The group has a long-term rental arrangement outside of the Winona Mall and is possibly interested in purchasing a site closer to Winona State University since many of its members are students there, but there have not been any suitable properties available in the area, Quraishi said.

"If the option we choose is to buy an existing building, then the question is, 'What do we do with the land we have?' Sell it? I don't know," Quraishi said. For now, all options are on the table. "It is not a pressing issue for us now because we already have a temporary place." He said that neighbors or other entities have not expressed interest in purchasing the space.

Main Street: empty lots have potential

The Winona Main Street program, a joint program between the city and the Chamber of Commerce to revitalize downtown, plans to spend $8,000 this year hiring a designer to meet with the owners of the destroyed buildings and prepare conceptual renderings for potential redevelopment. That redevelopment might be a new building or it might be a more temporary use of the space, said Main Street Coordinator David Bittner. He did not specify what temporary uses might be considered, but said that the designer would likely have many unique ideas.

What sort of uses the renderings depict be it a storefront with apartments overhead, a single story retail space, or something else will depend on how the property owners want to redevelop their property, Bittner explained. He hopes the renderings will be valuable resources for the business owners, which will speed redevelopment while encouraging the owners to consider styles that match "the architectural language" of the rest of downtown. Main Street is a nationwide organization that has a well-tested philosophy. Among those core tenents are cohesive design and the retention and expansion of businesses. Hopefully this effort will achieve both, Bittner said. Still, the renderings will be purely suggestions. Property owners "can take those renderings and run with them and follow them to a 'T,' or maybe there are just pieces of them that they like," he explained. Potential financing options will also be included in the consultation, Bittner said.

When asked how the consultation would apply to the Islamic Center given its apparent unreadiness to plan for redevelopment, Bittner said, "I don't know exactly what the Islamic Center can do or cannot do, but the consultant might have different ideas of what those property owners can do in the meantime." He added that, "If nearby businesses want to utilize it for something, they're going to have to get the permission of [the] owners."

Empty lots are sometimes converted into parking lots or park space, but in the long term "that's not something we want to encourage; that's not appropriate for this kind of space," Bittner commented. "It's a prime location for retail, for a business. That's what we want to encourage."

Businesses and property owners are asking Main Street and the city what resources are available, Bittner said. "This is just our way of trying to provide some type of value in their time of need," he stated. 


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