by CHRIS ROGERS

 

Winona County plans to begin construction on its new, $28-million jail later this month. No official groundbreaking is planned, but initial work to relocate utilities will begin in two weeks with construction on the site itself tentatively scheduled to start on October 24, Winona County Jail Administrator Steve Buswell said. The whole project is estimated to take 16-18 months, likely lasting into early 2023. After a few months of training staff to operate the new facility, the new jail is expected to open around June 2023, Buswell said.

The new jail is the culmination of seven years of planning and may be the single most expensive project in the county’s history. The county’s existing, 83-bed jail dates back to the 1970s, and after years of not meeting state jail codes for recreation space, accessibility, and health and safety infrastructure, the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) in 2016 ordered the county to shut down its existing jail on October 1, 2021. After multiple committees and studies over years, the County Board approved plans last winter to build a $28-million, 80-bed jail. The decision was contentious, with rural County Board representatives decrying the tax impact and pushing for a smaller jail, progressive Winonans criticizing the county for spending too much on incarceration rather than social services, and the County Board majority arguing that the jail was a needed expense. A county committee found that relying on neighboring jails for the long term would have been more expensive than building a new lockup.

“We’ve had a whole lot of research,” County Board member Greg Olson said last winter of the county’s jail planning efforts. “I don’t believe we’re building an oversized jail. I believe the proposal is a good proposal, and it’s the right size facility.”

With the current jail subject to the DOC’s shutdown order and the new facility over a year away from completion, in the interim the county will operate a 72-hour holding facility, keeping arrestees overnight and over the weekend, but largely outsourcing them to neighboring county jails. The move spurred the county to lay off much of its jail staff.

The new jail will be built next to the existing jail and Law Enforcement Center (LEC), taking up the existing LEC parking lot and a vacant lot to the west, just east of the interstate bridge landing.

The DOC is still reviewing the county’s blueprints for the new jail and has not given them its final stamp of approval, County Administrator Ken Fritz said, adding that he expects to hear back within a few weeks. In the meantime, the county may proceed with various site preparations, including the utility relocations and grading, he explained.

Because the new jail is eliminating a large county-owned parking lot at the LEC, its construction will cause a bit of a parking problem for the county. County leaders plan to demolish in October the former Winona Monument building on West Third Street across from the courthouse, which will provide a little added parking. “Unfortunately it’s just going to be really tight, and a lot of the employees will be in other parking lots for the city, down by the movie theater and some of the other lots in that area,” Fritz said.

Meanwhile, the County Board hired consultants to begin discussions with the city of Winona and Fastenal — which have both recently purchased large nearby properties for parking — to see if a collaboration on future parking is possible. “It’s hard to tell what the outcome would be, but I’ve told the city before that the county is interested in working on a solution and finding something that would be mutually beneficial,” Fritz said.

The city’s Port Authority recently purchased the former ProBuild property on West Second Street for $580,000, with the stated goal of using it for public parking. However, for now, it’s being used as a staging area for the construction of Fastenal’s riverfront office. Fritz said the county might be able to use some parking there in the future, but Fastenal contractors will occupy the space into February 2022.

Buswell said that, starting on October 18, traffic on West Third Street will be shifted over, with two lanes relocated to the northern half of the street. Other county officials said the traffic impact could last for weeks.

Chris@winonapost.com