by CHRIS ROGERS

 

They are both big projects people have been looking forward to for years: adding air conditioning to the upper floors of the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre and relocating and expanding the Friendship Center. The Winona City Council plans to fund the theater upgrades next year with $1.8 million in COVID relief funds while the $7-million Friendship Center relocation is on the back burner, waiting for outside funding to emerge.

New City Council member Steve Young recently revived a longstanding debate about how the Masonic Temple will be used in the future and whether that justifies the expense. “When I look at that kind of money, I’d like to see that we have a plan for the Masonic before going forward,” Young said of the $1.8-million heating ventilation and cooling (HVAC) project. 

The Masonic Temple’s first floor is currently home to the city’s senior center, aka the Friendship Center, and its upper floors are home to a theater, which is used occasionally for plays, concerts, weddings, and other events. The city recently spent — coincidentally — $1.8 million revamping the theater.

If the city moves forward with its plan to relocate the Friendship Center, city leaders have set out a vision for the Masonic to become a multi-purpose arts center, home to more regular events and offices. The Castle in Rochester, Minn., has sometimes been thrown out as an example of what the Masonic could become. The historic building holds a theater, a church, a restaurant, and an arts organization’s offices. “The long-range plan … is that the Masonic Temple would become the community arts venue,” Winona Park and Recreation Director Chad Ubl said.

To Young, those plans were a little loosely defined to be spending so much. “I’m trying to spend city finances like I would spend my own,” he said in an interview. “And so that means carefully … If a private citizen owned a building, I think they would want to have rather detailed plans before committing thousands or in this case millions to an HVAC system. It needs to be more than ideas. It needs to be some sort of a real plan with, I think, some commitments.”

City Council member Eileen Moeller and Mayor Scott Sherman pushed back, arguing for going ahead with the HVAC project and defending the value of the Masonic as an arts center. “There are many organizations in our city that would love to use that building and would have [the] lights on most of the year, but it is unbearable most of the year,” Moeller said, referring to the lack of air conditioning or air flow in the upper floors. She suggested the Masonic could host Winona Public Library programs, offer a venue for much needed activities for teens, or temporarily house ERC programs during remodeling of the ERC.

Ubl and Moeller said more detailed concepts for future uses of the Masonic Temple would be fleshed out in the city’s forthcoming Arts and Culture Plan. 

“Regardless of whether it’s arts or other programs, there’s potential in that building,” Sherman said. “Some things I’ve heard batted around throughout the arts plan and other conversations, it seems like, long term, we’ll really be able to utilize that building thoroughly. And the one thing that’s hindering us from doing that right now is HVAC,” he continued.

Moeller and Sherman also argued the city shouldn’t postpone maintaining the Masonic. “Ultimately, we’re talking about a building that the city purchased years ago. I was not part of that decision. But the city owns it, and we need to take care of it,” Moeller said in an interview. “The Masonic — that is a space that should be usable for citizens … I do think we owe it to the community to get it up and running so they can use it, because it is their building,” she added.

“Since we have had that building, we have stuck millions of dollars in it and we have gotten nothing out of it,” City Council member George Borzyskowski said. He lamented the loss of a potential partnership with philanthropist Mike Slaggie to fund some of the upgrades, before adding, “I hope we get something going because we’re putting money in, putting money in, because there’s not a business in town that’s going to invest $1 million, $2 million, $5 million wondering if, you know, somebody is going to buy it or not. But the people wanted the building. I sided with the people. Now, like I said, let’s get the building up and going.”

 

COVID relief funds

to pay for theater HVAC

The city of Winona plans to use most of its $3 million in federal COVID relief funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to pay for the Masonic Temple HVAC upgrade. According to the U.S. Treasury, the money is intended to: “Support urgent COVID-19 response efforts to continue to decrease spread of the virus and bring the pandemic under control; replace lost revenue … Support immediate economic stabilization for households and businesses; [and] address systemic public health and economic challenges that have contributed to the unequal impact of the pandemic.” Asked if the theater upgrade was the best use of the COVID relief funds, City Manager Steve Sarvi said in an August interview, “We’ll see what the council says. It’s a use. Not sure if it’s the best.” At an August 31 meeting, he said that eligible uses of the funds are somewhat limited. Property-tax backed debt is another option for funding the HVAC upgrade, but the City Council should consider the ARPA funds, he said. 

 

Friendship Center-ERC project still waiting for funds

For now, the $1.8-million Masonic Temple air conditioning project is going ahead. Meanwhile, City Council members seemed content to put the $7-million Friendship Center relocation on hold. 

Friendship Center members have been asking for more space for over a decade, and last year, the City Council invested over $320,000 into designing a new all-ages community center at the ERC. The designs are essentially ready, but money to cover the $7-million construction bill is not. After city staff initially proposed paying for the project with debt that would raise property taxes, city leaders have since said they are searching for outside funding — perhaps from the state legislature or Congress. So far, neither has materialized. Sometimes it takes years for projects to win state bonding funds — if they do at all. 

Asked if she was comfortable leaving the Friendship Center-ERC project on hold for now, Moeller said, “I think that’s appropriate considering the last 18 months … There have been a lot of unforeseen expenses in the last year and a half, and the city’s budget is really tight. Very few departments have been able to add on projects if they want to. It’s been very [focused on] what do we absolutely need?”

The city is in a difficult financial situation next year, forced to cut spending on road repair and eliminate staff positions despite a proposed five-percent property tax levy increase.

“So as much as I want to see us build a community center, and we need a comprehensive facility to provide opportunity for all age groups, I think it’s prudent to seek other funding sources for it,” Moeller said.

Asked if he was comfortable leaving the project on hold for now, Young responded, “The senior center, I think it’s a high-priority item for myself and many others on the council and in the community, yet we certainly need to make sure that we’ve checked to see if we can qualify for state or federal grant money. That would be a shame if we were to skip millions of dollars of grant money and tax the citizens of Winona for it, when we could have assistance with building some or all of it with grant money.” Young noted that funding $7 million in debt would require substantial property tax increases. He added of waiting for outside funding, “The tradeoff is time; that’s clear. The downside is it gets delayed.”

Chris@winonapost.com