by CHRIS ROGERS
After 20 years of representing Winona’s First Ward — from Prairie Island to Gilmore Avenue and from Knopp Valley to Wincrest — City Council member Al Thurley will step down at the end of this year. To replace him, voters have their choice of three strong candidates: Chris Meier, Ty Styx, and Steve Young. An August 11 primary will narrow that list to two top contenders for the November general election. In interviews and a League of Women Voters (LWV) forum last week, the candidates shared their visions for Winona.
“Better together” is Young’s campaign slogan, and he’s using it to emphasize the potential for Winonans of all kinds to come together and solve shared challenges. Young has run his own business, an American Family Insurance office, for 26 years, as well as serving on various nonprofit boards and church groups and coaching youth sports. He said running an insurance agency taught him how to listen to different people’s different needs. “If I were to serve on the City Council, I would bring an ear for the needs of each community member, consensus-building leadership, and sound fiscal management,” he stated.
“I want to make Winona more appealing for people my age” — people starting and growing their families, Styx said. Styx is a Winona native who grew up in public housing and went on to start his own successful construction company. He is involved in mentoring local youth and coaching youth sports. “Being the leader on sports team, the leader on a construction crew, you’re meeting and talking with and managing all types of people all the time at different emotional levels,” he said. It is taught him how to listen and not take it personally when people are upset, Styx said. “The ability to listen and have empathy for them is very important. I care how you feel, and you matter,” he added.
Meier worked for his family business, served as a building inspector for the city of Winona for over a decade, and now works as a construction code official for the state. He was a longtime union president during his tenure with the city, and has chaired various code committees for the state. “I understand the dynamics of how committees work and how city government works,” Meier said. He has made the city budget — and what he sees as a pending crisis with the city’s local government aid (LGA) funding from the state — a big part of his campaign. He also highlighted his commitment to reason and compromise: “Create an environment that everybody can be heard, listen to and come to an end solution that is going to be acceptable to everybody.”
One of the issues Meier said is most important to him is shepherding the city budget through what he expects could be a difficult financial future. In 2019, the city received $8 million in LGA from the state — a full 16 percent of the city’s revenue. Winona is dependent on the state for a big chunk of the city’s budget, but in the wake of a pandemic-era economic downtown turn, the state is likely to cut LGA to balance its own budget, Meier said. “The money may not be there; that’s going to be huge for us in this next budget cycle,” he stated. Plus, the school district and the county’s needs will pressure the local tax base, too, Meier noted. What is needed is for the city to avoid painful cuts is to conduct deep research into potential cost savings and new revenues. “Is there a better way to manage our fire department? Is there a better way to manage our police department? Is there a better way to manage our administrative level? Do we need all this administrative staff in the city of Winona? I don’t know. We need to analyze it,” he said in an interview.
Another top issue for Meier was making Winona a destination for tourists. “Bring tourism to the community, create revenues for the city, and then we can keep our infrastructure in place and create a beautiful place,” he argued.
Styx stressed riverfront development and mental health care as top priorities. Thousands of college students come to Winona, and thousands leave, he pointed out. “We need to get a portion of those college students to stay, but we need destinations for them and their families to enjoy,” Styx said. While downtown Winona has gotten a lot of investment in recent years, it hasn’t really made Winona that much more appealing from the river, Styx argued. Look at how much pride and excitement projects like the Main Square Community have made Winonans feel; the city needs to do that for the riverfront, he stated. “We have to make our city appealing from the river and we have to make our city appealing from the interstate. Until we do that, we’re going to float around 27,000 in population and Fastenal is going to employ the majority of people here,” he said.
Styx added that mental health is at the root of so many issues in the community, from kids who lack stable parents to the demands on the criminal justice system. More supportive housing for people and families with mental illness is needed, he argued.
“Here’s Winona’s best export: our educated children,” Young said. “They leave and they don’t come back, and that’s a shame.” He asked, “What does it look like to have youth want to stay here or want to return once they’ve got to school or gone to tech school somewhere?” Young said the answer to that question needs to come from listening to a broad range of citizens, but continuing the revitalization of downtown and the riverfront is an important starting point. “It is critical that we have a well-put-together, attractive downtown, and I think we’re well on our way to that,” he stated.
Young also stressed equity as part of his platform. “No matter your color, gender, or background you should have an opportunity to succeed in Winona,” he wrote in an email. In an interview, he added, “If one person is not being treated inequitably, we’re all being treated inequitable.”
From the proposed new Friendship Center/community center to new hiking and biking trails in the bluffs to renovating Central Fire Station, Winona has a long wish-list with numerous proposed projects totaling millions of dollars. Asked if the city can afford all of those projects and how he would prioritize them, Young said the Friendship Center and downtown and Levee Park improvements would be high on his list. The senior center is heavily utilized and the serious lack of accessible parking at the current location makes the need for a new center more urgent, he explained. More broadly, Young continued, “In our household budget we have to live within our means and the city must, as well. Clearly choices will have to be made as to what of these projects will have to wait for future funding.”
There could be more cost-effective ways to create great attractions, Meier argued. If Prairie Island Road wasn’t cratered with potholes, it would make a terrific riverfront bike route, rather than spending millions on a new path cutting through industrial areas, he stated. There are other opportunities, like partnering with the Minnesota Centennial Showboat, but, highlighting the city’s current debt load, Meier stated, “Do you spend money on your house when you’re not making the money? It’s a great wish list. Should it be condensed? Absolutely. We can’t do everything; we just don’t have the money in this community.”
Styx said he would support a smart, not grandiose, plan for a new Friendship Center/community center, but schools should be Winona’s top priority. “Bike paths don’t really matter to me if we’ve got schools that are shutting down. Bike paths don’t really matter if we’ve got 34 kids in a classroom instead of 28,” he stated. Styx added that if the fire station needs renovation, that essential service should be a top priority. “Those people are keeping our community going,” he said. “If they need equipment, we buy them the equipment. We don’t sit there and penny pinch. We give them the equipment they need to feel safe at work,” he stated.