by CHRIS ROGERS
With Winona’s mayoral recount wrapped up, candidates are gearing up for the November 3 general election. But, because they didn’t require primaries, two Winona City Council races haven’t yet gotten much attention. Incumbent Paul Schollmeier and challenger Aaron Repinski are vying to represent the entire city in an at-large City Council seat. Meanwhile, incumbent Pam Eyden and challenger Will Gibson are making bids to represent Ward Three (downtown and the city center).
Citywide race: Schollmeier and Repinski
“I think my main interest in running for reelection is to continue the forward progress of the community in terms of infrastructure improvements like roads, the levee, trails, a downtown arts corridor, the Broadway road diet, and the upcoming Mankato Avenue upgrade,” Schollmeier said. “I really think that Winona has been moving forward for the last six years or so, maybe longer, and not being so stagnant.”
“I really love Winona, and I love to be a representation of Winona, and I’ll shout its praises to anyone who will listen,” Repinski said. “Why am I running now? I’ve always wanted to run, but running two businesses and having two kids at home, I didn’t think I had the time needed to dedicate to it. But now that my youngest is in high school, I feel the time is right.”
Schollmeier grew up in Winona and was a longtime science teacher at the Winona Middle School. He was elected to the Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District Board before joining the City Council in 2016. He currently runs Efficiency Detectives, a small business advising homeowners on energy efficiency.
Repinski is a lifelong Winona resident and the owner of The Winona Tour Boat and Rip-Roaring Entertainment. He’s served on the Steamboat Days Committee and as an emcee for Winona State University’s homecoming parade. He is a member of the Elks Club and Civic Organization.
Asked about what issues are most important to him, Repinski responded, “I think I’d like to look at the immediate issues that will affect me and my constituents, like COVID-19 and the traffic issues, like Broadway and the roundabouts.” Schollmeier voted for the Broadway road diet. Repinski said, “Given the opportunity, I would work toward reversing the road diet decision.” He added of the proposed roundabouts on Mankato Avenue, “I have yet to meet a single person who thinks it’s a good idea.”
These kind of decisions require more feedback from citizens, Repinski argued. “What I’m hearing in the last few months from talking to hundreds of people is that they feel some of the decisions are made without public input. I’d like to see more community involvement and input at some of the meetings, such as the Broadway road diet,” he stated, adding he would support adding a public comment period to City Council meetings.
What does Repinski want to see the city do about COVID-19? “I’d like to see proper procedures and what we can do to flatten the curve,” he responded. He continued, “I think the city’s been doing pretty well on its response to that. Following state and local and national mandates on that is a good idea.”
“I think quality of life for the citizens of Winona is absolutely up there at the top,” Schollmeier said of his priorities. That might mean physical improvements, such as roads, ballfields, trails, the proposed community center, or it could mean programming, such as arts events or youth recreation, he stated. “All of those issues go back to supporting a higher quality of life for residents in town,” Schollmeier said. These improvements support Winona’s economy in the longterm by making the city “an attractive place that encourages economic development, where we can recruit employees and professionals for the diverse arts and manufacturing and education industries that we have,” he added.
Environmental issues are important to Schollmeier. He said he wants to create a sustainability commission. The city currently has the Citizens Environmental Quality Committee (CEQC), a subcommittee of the Planning Commission. The CEQC’s recommendations sometimes haven’t made it past the Planning Commission to reach the City Council’s desk. “The difference in my mind is, the committee reports to the Planning Commission and the Planning Commission can shut the down or limit their voice,” Schollmeier said of how a sustainability commission would differ from the current system. “All the other commissions we have report directly to council, so we can hear directly from the Fine Arts Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Heritage Preservation Commission. Why on earth is our environment any less important than those commissions?”
Winona has a long wish list of projects totaling many millions of dollars: the proposal to combine the East Recreation Center and Friendship Center into an all-ages community center, more improvements to Levee Park, further repairs to the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre, extending the Riverfront Trail, and renovating or replacing Central Fire Station — just to name a few. Can the city afford all of these projects? Which ones should get top priority?
Having a long wish list isn’t a bad thing, Schollmeier responded. “It is a sign that we have community leadership that is that forward-looking, that is visionary,” he said. The city should do all of these projects, but it can’t afford to do them all next year or all of them with local tax dollars, Schollmeier stated. “It wouldn’t be the right thing to do to lay all that in the lap of the residents of town,” he said. The Masonic Temple’s air conditioning broke down, so Schollmeier said he would support borrowing money for that project immediately so the building can be comfortably used while the city seeks outside funding for the community center and a new home for the Friendship Center.
“It all comes down to money, and in interesting times we have to be extremely cautious with the taxpayers’ dollars,” Respinski responded when asked about funding the city’s wishlist. “As a parent and small business owner, I know truly how every single dollar makes a difference.” Does that lead Repinski to conclude the city cannot afford all of them? “They need to be closely looked at from a financial standpoint,” he responded. Repinski added, “I’m a big advocate for the Friendship Center and for the older community members here in Winona. I believe we need to offer more services, and given the opportunity on council, I’d like to pursue those. Also, coming from a volunteer firefighter position, I’m a huge supporter of the firefighters and the police … And of course, with the levee, I’m a huge river person. I really think there are a lot of improvements we could do to bring tourism dollars into Winona.”
Central city’s Third Ward: Eyden and Gibson
Pam Eyden is an editor-at-large for Big River Magazine and a Winona resident of over 30 years. She got her start in civic service as a member of CEQC and Planning Commission in the 2000s, when she helped develop the city’s bluff and shoreline protections. Eyden has served on City Council since 2012.
“I care a lot about how the city evolves. When I was looking at running for a third term, I still felt I had to take some responsibility for that,” Eyden said. “I’m running for pedestrian safety. I want to continue the work I’ve done on that,” she stated. The same goes for the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre and downtown revitalization, Eyden added. “All of those things seem to have been rising ideas eight years ago when I first ran for office, and a lot has been done, but it’s not finished, and I want to see us continue that,” she said.
A product of local Catholic schools and colleges, Gibson grew up in Winona and worked for years overseeing Cotter Schools’ residency program and recruiting students from around the globe to study in Winona. After his father’s death six years ago, Gibson joined his family’s manufacturing business, Whetstone Machine. He serves on the Flyway Trail’s steering committee.
“This process of working with the Flyway Trail — everybody’s looking at, who is going to step up? Who is going to do this? And at some point you have to realize, we’re the adults in the room now,” Gibson said of why he is running. “I’ve benefited from Winona’s good governance as I grew up and raised my kids here.” Running for office was a way to make sure that is passed on to the next generation, Gibson stated.
The environment and downtown revitalization figured heavily in Eyden’s goals for the future of Winona. Protecting the bluffs is very important, she said, calling for careful planning of new trails and for the city to control deer populations overgrazing native plants. “Lake Winona is the center of Lake Park and people love it, but it has problems and we’re going to have to find the gumption to fix those problems,” she added of the lake’s water quality issues. “We need to take care of the blessings we’ve been given and the reasons we live here, and also make sure our downtown is a strong one, like a center in a wheel,” Eyden said.
Asked what makes the Masonic Temple important to downtown, Eyden responded, “It’s a historic building that has irreplaceable artistic and architectural features. We have many uses for it, and we have already invested in it … We have nothing else like that in downtown Winona.” Pointing to the dilapidated, former Winona Junior High School auditorium, she added, “It was neglected, and it fell to ruins, and it’s a shame. We should be moving on our historic buildings while we can still make something wonderful with them, and the Masonic is an example of that.”
Public input and engagement was a major theme for Gibson. He explained, “I thought it was really sad for Winona to be so divided on [the Broadway road diet] in a way that kind of mimics the divides in our country. That’s not what we need to be doing as a city.” With the government’s handling of public feedback on the Mankato Avenue roundabouts, he stated, “The way it came across to me was kind of patronizing a little bit to the people who are opposed to it.” Winonans are reluctant to change, but good leaders help bring people along, Gibson argued. As an example, he paraphrased Gov. Tim Walz’s explanation for delaying the statewide mask mandate: “The more time you give people to adapt to something and buy into it on their own terms before you mandate it, the happier they’re going to be, the more effective the policy is going to be. That was very educational to me. That there’s some thought to how and when you do things, not just if it’s the best decision, it’s the right decision.” With the Broadway road diet, Gibson said, “I haven’t seen or heard efforts to get people to buy into the decision. It’s just, ‘We made the decision; it’s done.’”
Asked about the city’s long wish list, Eyden responded, “Some of them I do see as priorities like the Masonic building for sure, because that could generate income for the city and draw people to our city. So that’s near the top of the list.” These downtown revitalization efforts are important to the city’s future, Eyden argued. “That’s one area we have to continue to push for the city’s economic well-being in the longterm,” she stated. “We have to really solidify and create that downtown as an arts destination and a good place to live.”
As for whether the city can afford all of its hoped-for projects, “The city would never bite off all of these,” she said. “A lot of things wait in the wings until there is an opportunity … They’re all important, but we’re going to have to wait until there’s enthusiasm and money, and the way it looks it looks like money is going to be a constraining feature.” That said, Winona cannot let these projects slide either, she argued. “I think the East Rec.-Friendship Center-community center is brilliant. I think we need it. It probably costs too much for us to take on right now, but we need to continue with that project in one way or another,” she stated. The city should dedicate staff time to applying for grants and seeking other funding opportunities, Eyden said.
Gibson argued essential services — water, sewer, police, fire, and streets — should come before wishlist projects. He raised concerns about the combined cost of the proposed community center, Masonic Temple, and other projects, and also questioned the future use of the Masonic. “We’re also renovating the Masonic Temple to the tune of like $5 million over the total bill — for what? For an empty building?” He added, “I think there’s some valid wants for all these things that are coming through the [community center] study, but when that comes to reality, we need to look at better utilizing the city facilities we have.”
With an uncertain economic future amid the pandemic, “I think I would take a cautious approach to funding outlays until we have a real sense of what are we dealing with here,” Gibson said. However, he continued, “I think we should finish what we started as far as the Levee [Park] projects go.” A big part of the idea of renovating Levee Park was to help spur downtown development, he pointed out. He argued the city’s stalled plans for redeveloping the neighboring parking lot into a hotel-apartment complex — the 60 Main project — should be renewed. “If you look at that failed 60 Main development, I don’t know, would Betty Jo’s or Jefferson’s still be open if that had gone through? I think it would be more likely,” he said.