by CESAR SALAZAR
During the September 19 Winona City Council meeting, the City Council voted 6-0 to stop pursuing the proposed police-fire-community-center project at the East Rec Center (ERC) and to look at alternative options for the project. With the exception of council member Aaron Repinski, who was absent, the entire City Council agreed with the motion made by council member George Borzyskowski to take the ERC off the table for building a police-fire station.
The vote eliminates the ERC site as an option for a combined public safety facility, and directs staff to continue to explore alternate locations for a combined or separate public safety building, while still keeping the option open for a community center at the ERC if other sites are not found.
Having scrapped the plan, the City Council will have to find new sites or possibilities for meeting the police and fire departments’ needs. The council asked city staff to look at alternate sites for the public safety building project, and Borzyskowski explained in an interview that those could include sites other than those studied by BKV and ISG earlier this year, and that staff could present other options.
“Going back to how this whole thing got started, I remember we were looking at an East End Rec community center project — how everything first got going,” Borzyskowski said at the meeting. “Then time went by, and then again, we looked at probably putting public safety down there, police and fire, and then [a] community center, etc, and so on, so forth. Now as the councilman for that area, when this proposal first came up, I totally jumped right on it.”
Then, Borzyskowski said he received a letter from former council member Dave Kouba, who wrote to Borzyskowski about how his children, grandchildren, and people in the neighborhood have used the site for years. Borzyskowski said that he realized the importance of the ERC. “I think back about it, yes, it is the hub of the Fourth Ward,” Borzyskowski said. He explained that he’s seen the community use the site for a variety of reasons, from Thanksgiving dinners to vaccinations, even as a shelter for families. “[Based] on what I've heard here in the past and all of the letters that I've received, there's an overwhelming response to not continue on with this East End Rec Center site for a public safety block.”
Other council members agreed with Borzyskowski’s sentiment about the site, among other things. Council member Steve Young believes that the site does not have the broad support needed.
“I’m very supportive and I’m happy that George proposed this,” City Council member Eileen Moeller said. She continued, later in the meeting, “I'm glad that most of council has changed how they felt about this issue. I'm happy that testimony and public opinion has swayed everyone.”
“We did what we said, we listened, I did what I said, we took in all of your comments, and I went out to the communities, and [we] were wanting to talk to people about it,” City Council member Michelle Alexander said. She continued, “So it's a very simple decision for me to support this motion and to consider other locations, which are readily available in the city that may better serve the police and fire [department’s] location.”
“I agree with this completely,” City Council member Pam Eyden said. “I look forward to working with staff and working with the community to find the right places.”
Mayor Scott Sherman expressed concerns that the city would receive criticism no matter the proposal. “I am concerned that if we eliminate this option, that regardless of where we put a police and fire building, we will continue to get the same comments,” he said. “I don't want to see that. I don't want to see our community torn apart by concrete blocks.” He continued, “Ultimately everything I've talked about up to this point, everything I've heard — my decisions were based on the information that I had. On my ride down here tonight, I was going to vote against this but when I knew that we were going to potentially take this off, a weight was lifted off of my shoulders.”
Sherman continued, asking that the community support whatever direction the city decides to take with the police and fire departments and community center. “It will take support from everyone in this city,” he said. “We are going to have higher costs if we don't combine these. We are going to have challenges in terms of maintenance on these buildings moving forward. We are going to get [pushback] from certain people who did want to see this move forward.”
At the end of the roll call vote, a small crowd present at the meeting cheered the City Council’s decision.
“I think it was appropriate that there was this much outcry from the community,” Moeller said. “I'm really happy that we saw folks mobilize and different groups of people, who don't always have common interests, got together … I think that when there are issues like this — where many of the very vulnerable people of our community are at risk of having resources taken away — there should be contentious discussions, and there should be uncomfortable feelings, and there should be lots of emails, because that means that this is working.”