by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona has the potential to attract and retain more creative people and businesses through art, outdoor recreation, and entrepreneurship. This has been city manager Steve Sarvi’s credo, and on Monday, Sarvi and Winona Parks and Recreation Department head Chad Ubl announced that the city created new staff positions to promote art and the outdoors. Earlier this month, Sarvi also unveiled a concept to create a business incubator and resource center for entrepreneurs. Art, outdoors, and innovation are strengths of Winona’s already, and Sarvi hopes to build on them.
For years, Winonan Lee Gundersheimer has been a spokesperson for the mutually beneficial relationship between art and business in the island city and for Winona’s potential to attract more creative people. On Monday, he started a new contract position as the city’s arts and culture organizer. A former Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) managing director who has taught classes at Winona State University (WSU), acted in Theatre du Mississippi (TdM) productions, and helped organize the 2013-2014 music series Live@theLevee, Gundersheimer has established ties to Winona arts organizations. In his new role at city hall, Gundersheimer will write grants and pursue funding for local art projects, work with the city’s Fine Arts Commission to draw up a new strategic plan for arts and culture in Winona, assist Ubl in managing the Masonic Temple restoration and redevelopment project, and serve as a point of contact for arts organizations and festivals.
Sarvi said that Lee has become a well respected and well connected arts organizer. “His ability to run a nonprofit speaks to his business acumen, which is important to us, as well … We just thought it was a real win for the city to be able to have someone of Lee’s caliber available to us,” he added.
The arts and the outdoors are a big part of what makes people want to live in a given city, Gundersheimer said in an interview. In recent years, that sentiment has become a talking point for the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce and business leaders who need to recruit professionals to work in Winona. Attracting young people to live and raise children in Winona has been a focus for the City Council, as well. “The fact that [city leaders] are willing to take actionable steps, not just talk about it, is really important,” Gundersheimer added.
Going forward, one of Gundersheimer’s and the Fine Arts Commission’s tasks will be to create a new strategic plan for the arts in Winona. In drafting that plan, Gundersheimer said, they’ll ask Winonans: “What does the community really want for arts and culture in the community?” Winona created such a plan as part of its 2007 comprehensive plan — it includes providing funding for the arts and creating an “arts and culture district” downtown — but that plan has not been updated since 2007. Last year, Sarvi and Ubl pitched the Fine Arts Commission on a plan to update the plan, but because of the extensive process required for amending the comprehensive plan — it requires several public hearings, legal notices, and votes by multiple city bodies — they said that creating a new, separate document might be more appropriate. That is the plan currently.
In the last year, the city has moved away from a program that provide mini-grants to local artists after a pool of privately raised funds for the grants ran out, but has been pursuing the concept of an “arts and culture district” downtown. In interviews last year, city officials acknowledged that what exactly an arts and culture district means is open to interpretation, but other cities have used the term to pair arts project with new development projects. Sarvi and Ubl have talked about such a district being home to artist-in-residence housing, for example, and it being a hub for getting information on arts events throughout the city. They added that the designation itself could be beneficial in winning grants.
That will be another duty for Gundersheimer: going after outside funding. Sarvi, Ubl, and the Fine Arts Commission have expressed interest in pursuing large, national grants that bring over $100,000 to the city.
Gundersheimer has plenty of ideas. He said he would like to help create opportunities for people to make and appreciate art in each of Winona’s neighborhoods, and he hopes to turn some of the Park and Recreation Department’s blank walls into a gallery for local artists. He said he wants to support and attract the next generation of artists and art patrons to Winona, and work to boost the number of arts and culture events happening each week. “What if it felt like Mid West Music Fest all the time?” he asked. “I feel we’re poised for a whole other level of greatness,” he added.
Gundersheimer encouraged artists, art patrons, and arts organizations to contact him and fill out a survey on how they are involved and what they would like to see. That may be found online at https://cityofwinona.wufoo.com/forms/artistpatron-contact-sheet-and-information-survey/.
City staff also created a new, yet-to-be-filled position: the outdoor recreation coordinator. This new staff position will focus on trails, with tasks such as new signage for canoe and kayak “trails,” better signage for the city’s bluff trails, better access to trails for pedestrians and cyclists crossing Highway 61, helping plan and secure grant funding for blazing new trails, and generally promoting outdoor recreation in Winona. “It’s about moving beyond potential to action,” Sarvi said.
The City Council already allocated money for the creation of a parks master plan — a plan for the longterm future of the city’s parks and trails. The state government gives out a lot of money toward trail building and recreation every year, but having a park plan is a prerequisite for winning the money. “Leading that effort is going to be one of the first jobs for the person,” Sarvi said of the new position.
City officials also want the new coordinator to revive plans for a riverfront bike path that would run along the Mississippi River from one end of the city to other. Winona leaders and citizens worked for years to advance such a plan in the 2000s, but an inability to secure easements from industrial property owners along the route and funding concerns derailed it. Last year, Winona Port Authority Commission Chair Mike Cichanowski said he thought the project should be revived as part of the city’s Opportunity Winona project.
“There’s so much exploding in the outdoor recreation world having someone with their ear to the ground is important,” Sarvi said.
How is this funded?
At Monday’s meeting, new council member Paul Schollmeier asked Ubl if he was taking money away from anything else to fund the new positions. “No,” Ubl replied.
Ubl reorganized his department’s staff and laid plans to save money by replacing outgoing, higher-paid staff members with entry-level hires in order to accommodate the new positions without asking the City Council for more money. City staff did not ask for council approval when they announced the change, and none of the council members raised concerns at Monday’s meeting. “I would think I died and went to heaven with all this good stuff going on,” Mayor Mark Peterson said.
Longtime recreation director Maynard Johnson plans to retire in the near future. Other employees left, as well, Sarvi said, including an experienced aquatic center director. The difference between the salaries the veteran staff members were earning and the lower wages their entry-level replacements will earn helped free up money for the new positions, Sarvi said. The city also eliminated a position at the East End Recreation Center and redistributed duties to other East End Recreation Center staff members, he said. Sarvi added that in some instances funding for the new arts and culture coordinator’s salary may be tied to project funding. For instance, if the coordinator works on projects to redevelop the Masonic Temple, some of the coordinator’s wages might be charged to the budget for that project.
Last month, Sarvi announced that city staff were working on a project to create a “Creative Space for Entrepreneurs” in Winona. The idea, Sarvi explained, would be for the city to help get a private organization or company off the ground that would run a sort of business incubator, where entrepreneurs, freelancers, and business start-ups could launch a business or project. It would be modeled off Collider Core in Rochester and other similar venues that aim to give creative entrepreneurs a space to work around other people with good ideas and skills that might help them.
Port Authority Commission member Mary Glubka pointed out that Winonans have tried to run business incubators multiple times in the past. “I don’t know if anything came out of it that succeeded,” she said. “It’s not an idea that hasn’t been pursued.”
Sarvi and Winona Economic Development Director Lucy McMartin responded by saying this concept was different, partly because it would seek to provide business mentorship programs for young entrepreneurs and programs to connect innovators with potential investors. “We know already there are students at Winona State that are starting businesses in their dorms,” Sarvi said. The city and other partners ought to help nurture that, he stated.
During discussions of a potential arts and culture district last year, local officials also talked about creating a “maker space” with soldering equipment, 3-D printers, and other tools that young entrepreneurs might not have in their basements.
Sarvi said that other partners, including local universities and businesses might help provide funding to get the incubator started and the goal would be for the incubator to be a self-supporting organization in the long-run.
“We’re going to move forward with a steering committee and see where it goes,” he told the commission members.