Levee needs careful planning


by Frances Edstrom

The city of Winona wants to put a "Shakespeare" theater on the riverfront. Usually we would greet such news with applause. But perhaps because we are downtown, on the riverfront, nearly every day of our lives, we would like to offer the city a few caveats.

First, it would seem premature to be planning a new theater for a festival that has yet to have opened the curtain on even one production. We have great hopes for the Shakespeare group, and are anxiously awaiting what should be a triumph for both culture and tourism for Winona. Should be, and probably will be a triumph, but as they say, "Rome was not built in one day."

Second, it is clear from even a cursory glance at the Levee that very little thought has gone into the city-owned portion of what should be a gem and major attraction in Winona.

Let's have a little history lesson. When the permanent dike was installed in 1981, it was a great thing for Winona. Never again (keep your fingers crossed) would we be awash in Mississippi River floodwaters, destroying homes and businesses and bringing life to a halt until the waters subside.

But at the same time, we lost Levee Park, which, from the early days of Winona, had been a place for picnics and strolls, and kids to smoke cigarettes they sneaked from their parents. With a permanent wall in place, the park became less people-friendly, although still a haven for young lawbreakers.

The original Steamer Wilkie (yes, there used to be a REAL old boat on the Levee, not just a building that looks like a boat), burned to the ground when it was being prepared to be moved to a new location on the Levee.

In an unfortunate turn of events, all considered thought was thrown to the wind, and in a civic gully-washer, the Wilkie family gave some seed money and a slapdash architectural plan to build a new "boat," and the Chamber of Commerce threw itself bodily into a frenzied fund-raising for the rest of the money needed to build the structure. The Historical Society, which had been the caretaker of the old Wilkie, and should have been for the new Wilkie, was shunted aside.

The boat was built, the band played, the Wilkie heirs took their bows, and then reality hit. There would never be enough money to take care of the thing, and its ill-planned interior severely handicaps any and all who valiantly over the years have tried to make it self-supporting.

Move on a few years. Everyone wants an excursion boat on the river. Several people try and eventually fall by the wayside. But in the meantime, the city throws up what is supposed to be a ticket booth. Not attractive.

Third, the question must be asked: Does Winona need a new theater? The answer is no.

We have two wonderful theaters at SMU and WSU, the WSHS theater is going to be remodeled, and there are several entities looking at a renovation of the National Historic Register Old Middle School theater. None of the local theaters are busy during the summer, the time that the Shakespeare Festival would be operating.

Fourth, even if we do decide that the Shakespeare Festival needs its own theater, is the Levee the best place for a theater? The answer here is no as well.

The purpose of a theater, and its inherent design, is to turn one's back on the outside world, to ignore one's environs to make way for a newly created world. And, a theater is rarely a building that is used by the public for many hours out of a day, or in the case of a Shakespeare Festival, for many days out of the year.

Any building on the Levee should be built with the idea of celebrating the river, not ignoring it. It should be a place where the public can revel in the vistas presented to us by the Mississippi River and ponder the long and rich history of this natural phenomenon. It should be suitable for many purposes, accessible to all people, and eminently usable.

City government seems to confine itself to planning for the future of Winona while looking at maps and charts within the confines of City Hall. City government must be more open, more receptive to questions and ideas from all concerned.

We have seen the messes city government gets itself into when the public is not involved: a retail park that was supposed to be an industrial park, a Grand Excursion ‘04 celebration featuring a missing-in-action planner and a California accordion band.

Yes, something should be done with Winona's Levee. But what is to be done must be very carefully considered.


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