by CHRIS ROGERS
The city of Winona just finished its new game plan for the future of downtown, and its recommendations may sound familiar: development projects, park and trail improvements, public art, and the beautification of downtown.
The Winona City Council unanimously approved the new Downtown Strategic Plan earlier this month. It replaces the city’s 2007 Downtown Revitalization Plan and is meant to set a long-term vision for the future of downtown over the next decade. The new plan comes at a time when downtown Winona has enjoyed a recent boom in major construction projects. “It provides a road map for our future, for downtown future projects,” Winona Economic Development Director Lucy McMartin stated. “It should help the community, it should help the council prioritize projects to be able to look at,” city manager Steve Sarvi said. “[It is] for developers to be able to look at what our priorities and values are and to be able to offer projects that will help us meet those values and needs as a community.”
Developing 60 Main Street, finishing improvements to Levee Park, building a riverfront bike trail, continuing upgrades at the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre, and redeveloping the former junior high school auditorium are all priority projects in the new plan. Sixty Main Street is the city-owned parking lot behind the Winona 7 cinema where city officials have been trying to find a developer to construct a hotel and multi-use building. City staff and consultants are currently developing plans for a second phase of Levee Park improvements and for constructing a riverfront bike trail extending east of Levee Park. Fastenal founder Bob Kierlin’s Main Square Development company has proposed to demolish the once grand, now dilapidated former junior high auditorium and construct a parking ramp there. The building is a local historic site, and Kierlin’s firm has not yet sought permission from the Winona Heritage Preservation Commission and City Council to tear it down.
The new plan also identifies a stretch of industrial properties on Second Street just east of Walnut Street as a site for “future redevelopment/reuse.” The plan doesn’t describe what that means. McMartin gave a broad explanation: “Reuse covers everything. It could be manufacturing reuse. It could be redevelopment … I think it’s just a general term.” Mayor Mark Peterson translated: “I think the Equality Die Cast site, well, if it should come for sale, I think it would be a desirable location in the downtown for some kind of development.” City officials proposed rezoning some of those East Second Street industrial properties to commercial-residential mixed-use zoning in 2016, but they backed down after getting flack from property owners.
The strategic plan also calls for lots of beautification efforts: from installing more greenery downtown to organizing litter pickup events to promoting public art and “placemaking” installations to revamping the city’s funding program for restoring historic storefronts. Pedestrian and bicycle improvements are a priority in the plan.
Several issues the city and the Winona Main Street Program have been working on for years appear in the new plan: nurturing a greater diversity of downtown businesses — especially restaurants and retail stores — and fostering more activity downtown after 6 p.m. and on weekends.
“People really wanted to see more dining options,” Winona Main Street Program Manager Ben Strand said, highlighting survey results from the plan. That ties into goals of creating more early evening foot traffic downtown, Strand noted. “Part of that is increasing dining options, but also finding ways to encourage downtown businesses and stores to stay open past 5 p.m.,” he explained. The Main Street Program’s Third Thursday Night Out series has tried to work toward that goal by coordinating evening hours and events.
On parking, the new plan largely reiterates the city’s 2018 parking study, which found — despite many Winonans’ opinions to the contrary — that there is an adequate parking supply and building a public parking ramp isn’t financially feasible. The strategic plan echoes the parking study’s calls for reevaluating the two-hour and 12-hour parking regime in downtown Winona and making changes to encourage employees of downtown businesses to park near the fringe of downtown while preserving more prime locations for shorter-term customers. The city hasn’t acted on those recommendations from the 2018 study. The new plan also calls for the city to “increase fines,” “increase enforcement” of parking rules, install better parking signage, and even consider parking meters.
On public safety, the plan calls for better street lighting downtown. It also notes that while many Winonans had a positive opinion of local policing, some racial and ethnic minority Winonans raised concerns about “perceived profiling, negative interactions with and fear of law enforcement.” The plan recommends community dialogue.
On several issues, the Downtown Strategic Plan offers few specific strategies and largely calls for more planning. On cleanup, the plan recommends, “Evaluate current policies, efforts, and resources for cleaning and beautification.” On parking, it states, “Review city ordinances related to parking, and regulations within municipal lots.” On snow removal, the plan says, “The city and downtown residents, businesses, and property owners should meet and develop a plan to provide for efficient snow removal during periods of heavy accumulation or icing.” In a table marked with two columns — one for goals and one for strategies to achieve those goals — the plan names expanding dining and entertainment options as a goal, but under a column labeled “How to make it a success,” the plans reads simply: “Supports a vibrant downtown.”
“I think it was short on specifics and solutions, and I’m not going to dispute that,” Mayor Mark Peterson said when asked about the issue.
The plan does include several specific, short-term strategies, McMartin said, responding to a similar question. She pointed out its calls for public restrooms at Levee Park and street lighting upgrades, in particular.
“We were deliberate about not being super micro-focused and down to the brass tacks of a project,” Sarvi said. “We wanted to make it a higher-level view of the downtown and where it’s going because the comprehensive plan will probably be more specific and this is just a good start.” The city is slated to write a new comprehensive plan starting in 2021, a document that sets long-term goals city-wide. The Downtown Strategic Plan is meant to become part of that new comprehensive plan.
The strategic plan includes a series of “quick wins” for the city to implement immediately. One of those calls for the city to allocate an annual budget item for downtown improvements. Asked if her department would be requesting such a budget item in the upcoming 2021 budget process this summer, McMartin said her department’s focus in 2021 is funding the new comprehensive plan.
The city spent $32,000 on the Downtown Strategic Plan, hiring consultants from ISG to conduct outreach and write the plan. The city has hired ISG for many major planning efforts recently: the recent comprehensive parks plan, concepts for combining the East Recreation Center and Friendship Center, and the redesign of Levee Park.
There are exciting changes coming for downtown Winona, Strand said, noting the recently opened Main Square Community, Fastenal’s plans for a major riverfront office, and the city’s goal of developing 60 Main Street. “Winona’s downtown is going to look quite different by the time 2022 rolls around,” he said.
The Downtown Strategic Plan is available at via the city’s website at bit.ly/3fSpNp1.