by CHRIS ROGERS
Back in 2015, Wincraft moved its sports memorabilia production lines out of a relatively cramped West Fifth Street plant and built a spacious, new factory on Winona’s East End. In turn, the growing sleeping bag maker, Enlightened Equipment, set up shop in Wincraft’s former space and expanded its business. These moves — which kept hundreds of jobs in Winona and created dozens more — were possible because the city of Winona Port Authority had big, empty lots for sale in an East End industrial park just waiting for a project like Wincraft’s.
But Winona is slowly running out of available industrial land. This summer, the Port Authority sold some of the last lots left in Riverbend Industrial Park to Winona Nursery and Landscaping, and it is in the process of selling the last remaining lot in J.T. Schain Industrial Park by the middle school to Hiatt Metal Forming. In recent years, other vacant lots in Riverbend Industrial Park have been filled up with senior housing and strip malls; Winona’s current zoning doesn’t block commercial businesses from using up industrial land. Across the entire city, the Port has six lots left totaling 28 acres.
Scattered plots of vacant industrial land are in private hands across Winona, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re for sale. “Private land and private land that’s available are two different things,” Winona Economic Development Director Lucy McMartin said. There are commercial lots on the market and vacant land on the city’s edge, but they are not zoned for industrial development. Squeezed between the river and the bluffs, Winona can’t simply sprawl outward.
When the remaining lots fill up, where will the next Enlightened Equipment, the next Peerless Chain, or the next Fastenal set up shop? When Winona’s existing manufacturing giants need to expand, where will they go? “We need to look at where we go with that,” McMartin said.
“Without industrial land there is no opportunity or limited opportunity for existing business growth and startups and new businesses,” said Dan Arnold, who owns the industrial machinery maker DCM Tech and leads the Winona Area Industrial Development Association’s (WAIDA) land development committee. “Winona is founded on entrepreneurs,” Arnold said. “If we don’t have available ground for future businesses, it’s going to stagnate.”
How urgent is the shortage of industrial land? “It’s meeting our needs today, but we’re not talking about a two-year or five-year window. We’re talking about a 20-year window,” Arnold responded. “We don’t have sufficient space for 20 years if we’re going to grow a manufacturing base.”
“I think we have time to plan,” McMartin stated. “I don’t think we have enough to last us for 10-20 years,” she said. That might sound like a problem for another day, but McMartin noted that planning for future infrastructure and industrial land takes a lot of time.
A crucial piece of that planning is coming up next year: a new comprehensive plan. The comprehensive plan sets a big-picture, long-term vision for the future of the community. It sets the stage for nearly all of the city’s policies, including expansions of city limits into rural land and any changes to the city zoning code. Winona’s current comprehensive plan was written in 2007 by citizen committees. City leaders plan to hire a consultant to write a new comprehensive plan, with public input, starting in 2021.
The 2007 comprehensive plan called for the city to expand its border and its water and sewer pipes south — along Garvin Heights Road, Pleasant Valley, and Highway 43’s West Burns Valley — all the way to the Interstate 90 interchange. In the valleys south of Winona, there’s little room for major factories, but the comprehensive plan envisioned an industrial park at I-90 and subdivisions in the valleys.
That vision remains unfulfilled. After the 2008 housing crash, demand for new home construction dropped off a cliff, and subdivisions that were created in the 2000s are only now starting to fill. The city hasn’t recouped the expense of extending utilities to some of those subdivisions, and sending sewer and water lines all the way to I-90 was estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars more. There are reasons the envisioned expansion to I-90 hasn’t happened yet.
Out at I-90, WAIDA owns WAIDA Acres: 210 acres of farmland the group plans to make an industrial park. In the 2000s, WAIDA asked the Winona City Council to annex the land — that is, make it part of the city and provide sewer and water — but the City Council never acted on that request. WAIDA Acres is currently under the jurisdiction of a different government, rural Wilson Township, and some development is proceeding under the township. This summer, Wilson officials approved five new lots for light industrial development at WAIDA Acres.
However, there’s limits to what can be built at I-90 without the water and sewer service a city can provide and with the township’s zoning code permitting light, not heavy, industry. “Our approach is, the light industrial,” township board chair Leon Bowman said. “We’re acceptable to green energy-type operations — no heavy industry, nothing that’s going to demand a lot of water, and nothing that’s going to be overly high that we can’t handle it with our fire department,” he added.
“There’s good opportunity out there, but it has to be compliant with their zoning,” Arnold said. “I think there is more opportunity if there is water and sewer out to the Wilson area, but we haven’t made that happen yet,” he added.
There have been changes in city leadership since the 2007 comprehensive plan, too. The current City Council has been more careful about developing steep land south of town and creating isolated, disconnected neighborhoods. City manager Steve Sarvi has been more wary about betting millions on southward expansion. “I think it’s unreasonable for the city taxpayers to put in $30 million of utilities and run them out,” Sarvi said in 2017. “That’s how cities go bankrupt. So we’re not going to do that.”
“It’s very costly to extend utilities and you have to make sure that it makes sense to do that,” McMartin acknowledged. “Simply running utilities for many, many miles just to extend them without a petition for annexation or a need just doesn’t make much sense. So I think it would have to be carefully looked at and planned. It is not an expenditure one should take lightly.”
Does the city still plan to expand all the way to I-90? “That really depends on the leadership in our next comprehensive plan,” McMartin responded. “That’s an action that the city, of course, would have to take a look at. And it would be up to the council, of course, and the leadership to do that.”
One way or another, “We have to grow the available land that can be developed for industrial applications,” Arnold said. “There’s a lot of different ways to do that. One is to consider annexation out to Wilson, and Wilson is not too interested in that, understandably so. There’s a lot of wetlands here that could be converted, but that’s a significant process. Across the street from Theurer [Boulevard] could potentially be developed into an industrial area of land, but there has to be a process to go through that of wetland delineation and wetland replacement. Someone has to have the vision in the city and state government to allow those type of activities, with controls, to grow.” Arnold was referring to wetlands and backwaters between Theurer Boulevard and Prairie Island. Historically, much of Winona’s industrial land came from filling marshes, but as Americans have come to better understand environmental costs of eliminating wetlands — which can include worsened flooding — state and federal governments have tightened regulations on it.
The new comprehensive plan will play a big role in deciding how Winonans tackle these issues going forward. Those discussions and decisions start next year.