by CESAR SALAZAR

 

The city of Winona is moving forward with new options for the Winona police and fire departments’ facilities, following City Council's unanimous approval on January 17 for a new study from consulting firm BKV. The new proposal would see six to eight options for standalone or combined police and fire stations, including an option for a new Winona Police Department (WPD) and Winona County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) facility. However, city staff and architects are not recommending renovations at the Law Enforcement Center (LEC), which the WPD currently shares with the WCSO.

Alongside the approval of the new BKV study, the City Council also approved a proposal to request $21 million in state bonding funds toward whatever option the city would select from the new study. The city staff’s intent is to try to combine public safety departments, now possibly including the Winona Area Ambulance Service, into one “regionally significant” facility to attract funding from the state legislature, especially with the surplus of money Minnesota has. Projects of regional significance have historically been candidates for state bonding, according to City Manager Chad Ubl.

The WPD and Winona Fire Department have been in need of new facilities for many years, which led the city to commission BKV for an initial study for solutions in 2021. Based on BKV’s initial study, the city had plans to construct a new police-fire-community-center at the East Rec Center (ERC), but following citizen pushback and input, the City Council ultimately scrapped those plans in September of last year and ordered staff to bring new proposals to the table, including possibly staying at the current LEC.

The new study is expected to take about three months and cost $11,500, to be paid for with the city manager’s contingency fund, city staff told the City Council. The six options in the new study included a combined police and fire station at the Central Fire Station block, a standalone fire station at the Central Fire Station block, a combined police-fire station on vacant portions of the former Central Elementary School block, a standalone fire station on the former Central Elementary School block, a standalone police station at the former ProBuild block on downtown Second Street (west of the Winona County Office Building and diagonally across from the LEC), and a new combined WPD-WCSO facility at the ProBuild site.

The proposal would also see additional options for design plans for facilities without a specific property in mind, and a contingent option in the case new property findings come forward, according to city staff.

The only council proposal from September 2022 that did not move forward was staying at the existing LEC. In a letter from architectural firm Market and Johnson, Project Manager Tyler Schulz told city staff that adding a third floor to the LEC would be “unachievable” and “inadvisable.” In another letter from BKV, Government Practice Leader Bruce Schwartzman wrote to city staff that the WPD faces major space deficiencies at the current LEC.

The state bonding proposal for $21 million comes from previous estimates for new standalone police and fire facilities, which cost somewhere in the ballpark of $42 million, Ubl told the City Council. The city would have to find a funding source for the $21 million match for the state bonding request, he said. City staff recommended that one possible option was property-tax-backed debt.

City Council member Jeff Hyma asked Ubl during the meeting if the city’s request for state bonding would be impacted by the city’s lack of a specific plan or proposal for a site. “I think in due time, if the state is seriously going to consider this ask, we’ll have to have some of those details worked out,” Ubl replied. “We’re hoping to get some more information from our state legislators on when that would be due, but again, that could be a process that would need to be completed this year.”

Hyma also pointed out that the police department is asking for four times more space than it currently occupies at the existing LEC. “That strikes me,” he said. “I’m not debating it. Anything that’s four times larger is significant.” He continued, “I think in life, there’s a difference between wants and needs. I think if you ask anybody, ‘What kind of house would you want,’ we can all put together some great things. But in this situation, it’s finding the balance between those wants and what is needed, and what can we afford.” Schwartzman replied by stating that a significant portion of the requested space would be for about 20,000 square feet of indoor parking and training space.

City Council member Jerome Christenson said in an interview he’s going to choose a site based on the data provided by BKV. “I’m going to wait and see what the consultants come up with in terms of information,” Christenson said. He explained that neither he nor his fellow council members were architects or design experts.

City Council member Aaron Repinski said he’d be in favor of whatever option that provided the Winona taxpayer the lowest tax increase while also being able to combine public safety facilities, as he believes that option is the most advantageous for the city.

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