by CHRIS ROGERS
Every seat in the council chambers was full in 2018, when the Winona City Council voted to dedicate $15,000 to planning a new location for the Friendship Center, the city’s senior center. Since then, the council has spent $320,000 developing construction plans for a $7 million expansion to the East Recreation Center (ERC) that would house the Friendship Center’s programs in an all-ages community center. The design is all but complete, but the funding is nowhere in sight. City officials now say the project may not happen for several years.
“… The senior center is not moving next year or two years [from now] or probably five years from now,” City Council member Michelle Alexander said at a meeting last week.
“That’s correct,” responded parks department head and Acting City Manager Chad Ubl, whose department includes the Friendship Center.
The topic came up as the City Council discussed its plan to spend $1.8 million next year on a new heating ventilation and cooling system for the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre, the current home of the Friendship Center.
“I’m just trying to be realistic about getting the money together to do the project,” Alexander said in an interview. The most common way for cities to fund multi-million-dollar projects is to borrow the money, then raise property taxes to pay back the debt over many years; however, city officials shied away from that option in 2019 and 2020, focusing instead on state funding sources, particularly state bonds from the legislature. The legislature traditionally bonds every other year, so if the community center project doesn’t make it into the 2022 bonding bill, the next opportunity would be in 2024, Alexander noted. She also raised the possibility of the city using a local sales tax to fund the center, something that would require first legislative approval and then a referendum, a process that takes over a year at least. “Realistically, five [years] is probably optimistic,” Alexander said.
“I can understand two years, maybe even three, but five is really disappointing,” Friendship Center Activity Council President Gloria Hammond told the Post. “I always laugh and say I probably won’t see a community center in my lifetime because I am 87, but I don’t laugh about it anymore. I don’t know if we’ll see anything accomplished on that, and I am disappointed.”
“Right now we continue to look for funding sources for the community center,” Ubl said in an interview. “Primarily we’re looking for dollars that could potentially come from federal or state sources.” Even if the council had the money today, bidding and construction would all take a significant amount of time, he continued.
Since 2018, Winona’s wish list has grown to include a possible new fire and police station — another project city staff are currently studying — further upgrades to the Masonic Temple, along with new trails. They all compete for limited funding from local and outside sources. This year, signs appeared that the city may have overextended itself financially, as city leaders plan to cut nine staff positions to make up for a large deficit in next year’s budget.
“I realize everyone is short of money, including the City Council — they have so many irons in the fire — but everyone is important and the seniors, of course, are very important to the economy of Winona, whether they want to agree with that or not,” Hammond said.
The only nationally accredited senior center in Minnesota, Friendship Center members and staff say its programs have been “bursting at the seams” in its current space, and the city officials have been considering a relocation for close to two decades. The city commissioned plans in 2006 for essentially the same project: expanding the ERC to house the Friendship Center. In 2018, the elimination of most of the center’s parking for the development of Main Square added a sense of urgency for some at city hall. The pandemic temporarily eased the overcrowding, with at-risk seniors opting to avoid in-person programming, but that trend is turning around, Friendship Center Director Malia Fox said.
“What are they going to do with us?” Hammond asked. “Our membership is climbing back up, and pretty soon it’s going to be the same old thing. We’re not going to have enough room to do everything, and the parking hasn’t changed.” She continued, referring to the rising cost of construction over time, “You know it’s not going to get cheaper. So if they put it off long enough, they probably won’t do it at all.”
“I can respect that,” Ubl said when asked about Hammond’s concern. “The idea that we don’t want this to sit on a shelf and be lost, goes back to my original comment that staff is looking for sources of funding.” He continued, “I take it as a positive that the council continues to discuss the community center as a project … I take it as a positive in terms of we’re still looking for a funding source rather than, the council voted for this not to happen.” He added, “We’re going to exhaust all possibilities before we get to a no.”
This project is still happening, it’s just going to take a while, Alexander said. “Optimistically, she should assume it’s going to happen unless the council votes to remove it as an upcoming project,” Alexander said when asked about Hammond’s concern. “I’ve not heard from any council people that they’ve abandoned this project or this idea,” Alexander continued. She acknowledged, “Everything takes time, and I think that’s why people get frustrated sometimes with government.”