by CHRIS ROGERS
It has two gyms, plenty of green space, and no up-to-date cost estimate yet. Winona city staff this week unveiled the latest draft, conceptual plans for expanding the East Recreation Center (ERC) to relocate the city’s senior center, the Friendship Center, and create an all-ages community center. One of the biggest changes from past designs is the addition of a second gym, in part a response to concerns that relocating Friendship Center programs into the ERC’s single gym would displace youth recreation. The concept is still in a rough draft phase. The City Council gave architects the nod to work toward producing near-final designs and cost estimates by November.
“I think it’ll be a huge asset for the community when it is done,” Mayor Mark Peterson said.
“This is one impressive redesign of that entire block. Very, very sharp to look at,” City Council member George Borzyskowski said. “And [it is] kind of in our plans, you know, if we do want to move the existing center. And I guess I’d be for continuing on.”
The proposed design would add on a second gym, a large multi-purpose room, and a small fitness center onto east side of the ERC building, renovate the existing building, and completely remake the grounds surrounding it. Renovations to the existing building would turn the ERC’s main room into a smaller commons area and two activity rooms for cards or arts and crafts. The building’s exterior would add color and texture to what is currently a plain, block-shaped structure. Outside, the blacktop that currently takes up the entire southern half of the block would be replaced almost entirely with grass and trees. A small patio opening off the building and a pump track — a series of rolling berms and banked corners for BMX bikes, mountain bikes, skateboards, or scooters — would occupy part of the south lawn. On the east side of the building, an astroturf lawn abutting the building would serve as place for outdoor fitness classes. The proposed design would remove the ERC’s current basketball courts and replace them with two, small half courts on the northeast corner. It would also significantly downsize the ERC’s community garden, going from over 35 raised beds to around 10 raised beds and several fruit trees and berry bushes. Instead of the current fenced off garden area open only to people who rent plots, the proposed raised beds and fruit trees would be open to everyone, city staff said.
“I think this is really beautiful and would be a benefit to the community and something we could show off proudly,” City Council member Eileen Moeller said.
The design tries to provide amenities for users of all ages, encourage intergenerational activities from cooking to crafts, create flexible spaces with multiple uses, and offer an inviting flow from indoor to outdoor spaces, the designers from consulting firm ISG explained. Friendship Center Director Malia Fox said the design reflects the city’s vision for an all-ages community center that connects older adults, young parents, and children. A combined community center could create opportunities for Friendship Center members to teach young aspiring viral video stars how to use the Friendship Center’s filming equipment or how to cook vegetables from the garden, Fox suggested. “Getting older adults as part of the community, they are huge assets to children,” she stated. By having older adults and youth recreation segmented, both generations miss out on the joy, mentorship, and perspective intergenerational connections can bring, she said.
“To me, that’s a good idea to have the older people there because a lot of the kids that go there don’t have grandparents,” said Andre Bailey said, who leads a youth drum line that practices at the ERC. “That’s what community is all about — everyone getting involved with the children,” he added.
The ERC is the city’s last remaining, free, drop-in recreation center, and many children and teens go there nearly everyday in the summer or after school. It provides a crucial service for working families who lack other childcare, and offers a safe, supportive environment for kids. “It’s a valuable place because it’s a place where the kids can go,” Bailey said. “They don’t have anywhere else to go, especially on the East End.” Bailey said the ERC needs more space for kids to play and study, noting that the current single gym
Bailey said the ERC needs more space and amenities for youth to play and study, as well as some repairs. The Friendship Center also needs more space, especially for popular wellness classes. The city’s original plan for expanding the ERC to accommodate the Friendship Center would have been smaller than the combined footprints of the two existing centers, leading some Winonans to question whether the facility was big enough for both. Just before the pandemic hit, the Park and Recreation Department also planned to bring in a pay-to-play batting cage to the ERC gym — a nice amenity and another demand on gym space and time. Since the ERC-senior center combination was first proposed and again in a public input survey this summer, some Winonans raised concerns about the Friendship Center scheduled programming inadvertently taking over the ERC from spontaneous youth recreation, noting in particular that the ERC is a valuable resource to many families of color. “I am extremely nervous that this project will take away accessibility of the East Rec. from children of color and children who are underprivileged and underrepresented,” one citizen wrote. “This is my greatest fear for our East Rec.: that the older adult user group will effectively take it away from the kids — not overtly, of course, but just by making it less safe and carefree for the kids,” another commented.
Asked about concerns that the project would displace youth recreation, Winona Park and Recreation Director Chad Ubl pointed to all the youth-focused amenities in the proposed design: the pump track, nicer basketball court, and a gagaball pit — a sort of agility-based, less dangerous version of dodgeball. Most notably the addition of a second gym would go a long way to alleviate scheduling conflicts between Friendship Center programs and ERC open play. “I don’t see any displacement; I see community,” Fox stated.
“I feel that the design was intentional to not displace anyone from that facility,” Ubl said. “If we don’t have a second gym, we wind up overbooking ourselves with programs in one gym, and then I think there could be more legitimate discussion of saying, ‘Well, who is getting displaced by not having appropriate space for your programs?’” he continued.
If funded, this proposal would be the culmination of years of work and decades of hopes. Located in the first floor of the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre and with increasingly popular programs for Winona’s growing population of older adults, the Friendship Center has been cramped for years. For over a decade, the city has been planning to create a bigger home for the center, but concerns over cost and debates over location have repeatedly held the project back. A $9.2-million cost estimate caused the City Council to pass on renovating the former Central Elementary School into a community center in 2018, and after getting an $11-million cost estimate for a fully loaded community center at the ERC, city leaders briefly scrapped plans for a new center and eyed keeping the Friendship Center at the Masonic. Friendship Center members convinced the council to pursue the ERC site after all. Since then, city leaders have been using a $5-million cost estimate that dates back to the 2000s — when a very similar project was proposed but never funded — as a placeholder in budget planning. However, some City Council members have said they think the cost is likely to be significantly more than $5 million, and Ubl acknowledged the addition of the second gym could add to the price tag.
Ubl reminded the City Council that to manage project costs, “We can subtract items out, we can add items in.” Asked in an interview whether he would recommend cutting the second gym if it pushes the project over $5 million or whether he would advocate for a larger project budget, Ubl said he would not recommend eliminating the gym because of its importance to ensuring appropriate space for youth recreation.
While the city tentatively plans to borrow money — paid back with future property taxes — to fund the community center, all funding options are on the table, from grants to state funding to fundraising, Ubl and city manager Steve Sarvi said.
City Council member Paul Schollmeier said he supports the community center project. Infrastructure costs money, whether it’s roads, sewer pipes, or city buildings, he said. Having infrastructure and amenities that make Winona a nice place to live helps attract the families and workers that local companies need to thrive and support the economy, Schollmeier continued. “The community center is a good project to do. It will improve the quality of life for a broad spectrum of Winona citizens,” he added.
“It always comes down to cost,” City Council member Al Thurley said. Nevertheless, this might be the kind of project that is worth a major investment, especially since it serves all ages, he stated. “If it’s justified as serving more people and allowing for flexible programming — I think that makes sense,” He said. Thurley drew some boundaries around what he would support: “I certainly would be surprised if they came back with a $13-million or $20-million cost — that would be a little too much for me.”
The Friendship Center currently is open to members that pay a $30 a year fee. The ERC is free and no signup is required. Will the city charge for some or all of the amenities at a new community center? “We are still working on that,” Ubl said, recognizing the amount of interest in the topic. “Please consider the children who would not have access to resources if the East Rec. was not free,” one citizen wrote in this summer’s survey.
City staff have previously discussed possibly charging for access to some areas, such as the wellness center, but not others. Ubl indicated all options are on the table. “We have not determined — because I think it’s a larger council discussion — what fees we want to charge at this center, and whether it would remain a drop-in center or whether there are fees we want to charge for programming,” he stated. Ubl and Fox noted that there are scholarships available — thanks to outside nonprofits — to help pay for Friendship Center memberships and fee-based Park and Recreation Department programs.