Submitted Photo
This is the trolley that would ferry visitors to and from the Wilkie and other local sites.

Wilkie steams ahead


Photo by Sarah Elmquist
Photo by Sarah Elmquist
Mayor Jerry Miller tries a Wilkie cookie, one of the group™s many fund-raising ventures.

by Sarah Squires

Months ago, all they had was hope and determination. Now they have a P.O. box, a checking account, business cards, their own cookie. And a trolley.

The Julius C. Wilkie Paddleboat, Inc., more commonly called "the new Wilkie group" or "the save the Wilkie group," has been gathering donations, ideas, plans and steam since the Winona City Council gave them a month and a half to work out detailed plans on how they might save the Wilkie and keep it viable in the future.

Don Trester, construction advisor for the group, spent Friday loading a candy apple red trolley onto a trailer in the Twin Cities, headed for Winona. The group hopes to use it to bring Wilkie visitors to and from the Wilkie and other local museums and attractions.

The Paddleboat group also met with council member Tim Breza Thursday to discuss the plans, which will be revealed to the City Council in early March. Breza, along with council members Deb Salyards and Gerry Krage were appointed in November to act as a committee and work with the group. The three will then make a recommendation to the full council in March on whether to accept the Paddleboat group's request to repair and operate the boat.

"I was the guy from the dark side," said Breza during the meeting, referring to his own criticism of plans to save Winona's attraction. But, he added, "I would like to see you succeed. I'm optimistic."

Breza told the Paddleboat crew that, since Salyards and Krage were unable to attend Thursday's meeting, another meeting ought to be scheduled soon that they would be able to attend. He said that, although he was hopeful, he would not make a recommendation to the council by himself. He told them they should make sure that Krage and Salyards, who were more receptive to their plans in the past, were on board before approaching the full council.

The group plans to approach the council at its next regular meeting for a different request. They'd like to apply for a federal matching grant from the Department of Interior, as well as another grant from a private group. In order to qualify for the federal grant, the group must either have nonprofit 501(c)3 status, or apply as a branch of a local government. The group is still in the process of gaining nonprofit status, and will approach the city for approval to apply as a branch of the city during the next meeting, and are trying to hurry as the deadline for the grants is looming.

The group also updated Breza on their progress in fund-raising. Clarence Russell, president of the Paddleboat board, told Breza that people have been coming up to him while he's out and about, asking him questions, handing him money, and wishing him luck.

It isn't just Bloedow's new Wilkie cookie that's going to bring in the big bucks for the group, although they are making an estimated $90 per day with the sweet tooth fund-raiser. The cookies cost $1.50, and will be sold in monthly intervals of two weeks until the group raises an estimated $5,000.

They also have a list of fundraising activities in the coming months, including a silent auction in March, a community variety show in April, and corresponding events with the farmer's market during the summer months. There will be dances for families and teens twice a month, if everything goes as planned, and the group expects to start booking events to be held on the boat starting in September 2007.

The group is confident it will have the Wilkie fixed and open for business by then. They plan to first fix the boat so it can be reopened, and then move ahead with more aesthetic repairs.

The group munched on the Wilkie cookies during the meeting, and Mayor Jerry Miller stopped by for a bite. He told them that, if everything works out with their plans, his idea was for the city to maintain ownership of the boat, and contract them to operate it and care for it.

"I know the council's going to want to see some pretty concrete things, and I hope you all can get that together," said Miller. "I know you're passionate about [the Wilkie], the council can be passionate, but we have to use our heads and our hearts."

Breza said that, if the city maintains ownership over the boat, the group would probably be working under shorter termed contracts. The group responded positively, stating they'd like to be open with the city, and wouldn't mind having the city review their work often.

Paddleboat vice-president Tammy Kenner said that it was their vision to make the Wilkie a place that attracts families and activities, and that the group wanted to be an active and very open board. "Everyone can be a part," she said. "[They can say] ‘it's not their Wilkie, it's our Wilkie.'"

"Tourism is this nation's fastest growing economy," said Paddleboat board member Don Stone. "I think there's much that can be done.... Thousands of new people; thousands of new dollars, and we can use them."

Breza told the group that he would like to see them succeed in saving the Wilkie, but that they needed to take a critical look at their plans. Developing a detailed business plan, maintenance plans and operations and programming were important things to have together before the March council meeting, he said.

"Your proposal's going to have a lot of what-ifs in it," said Breza, adding that the group has to identify what assumptions it makes during planning.

While Breza did not take a Wilkie cookie during the meeting, he did wish the group well. "[It's] not that I don't like cookies," he said. "That's the problem."

Want to help save the Wilkie? Here's how:

" Buy a Bloedow's Wilkie cookie, or buy a dozen;

" Make a tax-deductible pledge;

" Volunteer your ideas, or your time - the group is open for new faces;

" Watch and support upcoming events like the March silent auction or the April community variety show. There will also be a "First Tug of the Spring" celebration featuring hot chocolate and river songs;

" Contact the group by calling Clarence Russell at 429-9101, Dave Kouba at 454-3163 or Tammy Kenner at, or write the group at The Julius C. Wilkie Paddleboat, Inc., P.O. box 882, Winona, Minnesota, 55987.


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