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Council debates Masonic’s future



As Winona leaders grapple with the future of the city’s senior center, one of the key issues has nothing to do with the senior center itself. It has to do with the center’s current home. What will the Historic Masonic Temple be used for if the Friendship Center moves out?

“I want to preserve [the Masonic] and use it. And if we’re going to put money toward it, we need to have a use for it,” City Council member Michelle Alexander said last Monday, during a meeting on city staff’s $5.4-million proposal to expand the East Recreation Center (ERC) and relocate the Friendship Center there.

Making the Masonic Temple a destination arts and events center has been a goal of the City Council since 2016, and the council voted unanimously to borrow $1.8 million to upgrade the theater space in 2017. Now, the potential departure of the Friendship Center from the Masonic Temple’s first floor could open up 9,500 square feet of additional possibilities.

While Alexander has supported the council’s over $2.3-million investment so far in the Masonic’s second-story theater, she cast doubt on the economic feasibility of using the entire building for arts alone. The Masonic still needs upward of $1.5 million in additional upgrades.

City Council member Eileen Moeller argued that, if the Friendship Center moves out of the Masonic’s first floor, investing in the Masonic as an arts and event center could bolster Winona’s economy as a whole and support the revitalization of downtown.
Should Winona make that investment? What would that look like?

What could be

Artist studios, workshops, dance classes, meeting spaces, galleries, art organization offices, a shared box office for Winona festivals — arts organization leaders and city officials have thrown out all manner of ideas for how the Masonic Temple could be used. The theater could host weddings, concerts, plays, conventions, and other events, and a revamped commercial kitchen at the Masonic could cater events, host cooking classes, and/or serve as an incubator kitchen for foodie entrepreneurs, they suggested.

“The money that we’re investing in the Masonic Temple is for that to be a multi-purpose, multi-disciplinary arts venue,” Winona Park and Recreation Department Community Services Director Chad Ubl said. “So that means anything from community plays to theatrical productions to music to film to a catch-all of, if you need an open area for 200-300 people, this is a downtown venue for that.”

“I am constantly getting requests to use the space that I can’t accommodate,” Page Theatre Managing Director Theresa Remick said of the performing arts center at Saint Mary’s University. There are a number of performance venues in Winona, but they are often booked solid, she explained in an interview. It is a sentiment Great River Shakespeare Festival Managing Director Aaron Young echoed in a past interview: “We’ve been talking about expanding our program beyond the summer and throughout the year, but we have trouble getting a venue.”

River Arts Alliance Board Chair Vicki Englich said that, in her personal opinion, many local artists are also in need of affordable studio space. If the Friendship Center does move, Remick told the council last week, “The arts and culture community is extremely excited about the potential use of that building.”

There are examples of successful multipurpose arts centers in other communities, such as the city-owned Sheldon Theatre in Red Wing, Minn. Moeller and city staff recently toured the Castle Community in Rochester, Minn., a former city senior center that was purchased by a private company and is now home to a restaurant, a cafe, a used-book store, artists’ studios, an art supply shop, a yoga studio, a multipurpose event venue, and some foosball tables.

“In order for a space like that to be successful in our current culture, it can’t be monolithic,” Moeller said, pointing to the Castle Community’s variety of uses as a model for the Masonic. “It needs to have a bunch of different things going there so if one part lags, the other parts can make up.”

While it is occasionally used for performances, weddings, and other events, the city has never developed a detailed plan for how to program the Masonic Temple — how to fill it with regular events and activities. The consulting firm ISG’s recent study focused on the future of the senior center and the proposed expansion of the ERC, and did not provide suggestions for the Masonic — other than a proposed $430,000 renovation of the Masonic’s kitchens. If the senior center moves out, Moeller, Ubl, and arts leaders said more discussion would be needed about how the Masonic would be used.

“There’s all sorts of things you could do there,” Englich said. “But it needs to be a collaboration of all kinds of people, including city government.”

Is it a good investment?

City officials plan on making $1.5 million in upgrades and repairs to the Masonic Temple in the next few years, including adding air conditioning to the theater. Overhauling the Masonic’s kitchens would raise the estimated price tag to almost $2 million, and some of the ideas thrown out by arts leaders might require additional renovations. Do Winonans want to spend that much on an arts center?

“When I’m going to the taxpayer, what works is if there’s a purpose for a structure,” Alexander said in an interview. “Having an empty building that is as expensive as [the Masonic] is to maintain and repair, doesn’t make sense,” she added.

Alexander said she didn’t necessarily think that it was too expensive for the city to both expand the ERC and renovate the Masonic. However, she stated, “The question about whether or not the city can really afford both comes back to: what kind of improvements do we need to make to the Masonic to make it usable? Would those groups really be willing to pay to use the Masonic?” She added, “Does it pay enough for the city to make that happen?”

Organizations would be willing to pay for use of a nice facility, Remick said. With the planned upgrades to the Masonic, she added, “We’re on the path to making that a facility that would be used by renters.”

Alexander cast doubt on Remick’s advice, noting that when the city raised rents a few years ago, Frozen River Film Festival and the local Masons lodge — who had previously leased office space at the Masonic — found other locations.

There are ways to do it, Remick said in an interview. “Yeah, maybe a small nonprofit couldn’t afford to pay larger sums of rent, but if you hold a wedding there, maybe that could offset the rent,” she explained.

If the Masonic becomes an arts center, the city and arts organizers should seek out every revenue-generating option; however, city leaders should expect to recoup some, but not all, of the building’s operational costs, Ubl said. “If we were to charge a fee that would cover all of our costs, it’s unlikely that some or all arts organizations could afford that,” he explained. Instead of expecting a direct payback, city leaders should see such an arts center as an investment in the city’s economy, Ubl continued. “If we have a local play in the theater and we charge rent to cover some of our costs and that play then has people come to town and people who go out to eat, people who stop at Kwik Trip for gas on their way out of town and [the Masonic] becomes an economic driver for our town, one could argue that it isn’t about recouping 100 percent of our costs. [It’s about] the city becoming a partner in community art by providing a facility for these opportunities to happen.”

“I think that the potential services and amenities that can be provided to the community are worth the investment,” Moeller said. “We’re talking about wanting to have a vibrant downtown where people want to spend a lot of their free time, and investing in a building that allows them to do that or allows them to kickstart a business or creative process is absolutely worth it because all of that builds up the health of the community,” she continued. “It’s definitely a longterm investment. It’s not something where you get it done and boom, you get all your money back,” she continued. “Just like a public pool — that’s not something where you build it and get your money back right away, but that’s not what its primary function is. It’s primary function is to serve a community. That’s why we have spaces like libraries.”

“That’s really the question, right? Does the community want to underwrite it?” Alexander stated. “Personally, if the city is going to own it, I think they need to get back the operational expenses or maintenance expenses.” She said she does not believe the community wants to subsidize the operation of an arts center in the way it funds the local library.

At last week’s meeting, Alexander said she is uncomfortable approving the $5.4-million ERC expansion and Friendship Center relocation until the city has more clear plans for the Masonic Temple. “I wanted some more information before we strip the Masonic bare and leave it as a blank slate hoping we can fill it someday,” she told the Post.

City Council member Pam Eyden said she understood the trepidation about what would happen to the Masonic Temple if the senior center moves out. However, she pointed to historic buildings in the Twin Cities that are home to all manner of creative uses. “It just creates this really vibrant atmosphere, and you just cannot tell what’s going to happen when you’ve got a lot of creative people bumping together in the same building,” she said. “So, I’ve gotten to be really excited about the possibilities for the Masonic hosting that kind of activity and I think there’s no reason why we shouldn’t move forward with it.”


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