Waylon Pelowski took full advantage of Levee Park’s new fountains.
Steve “Fish” Shaw caught a northern pike at the Prairie Island spillway.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona’s parks system is full of potential and in need of repairs. Local citizens and officials have ideas for building new mountain-bike trails and canoe-rental huts, as well as for closing some playgrounds and, potentially, selling one park for residential development. With 34 different parks and facilities and tens of thousands of citizens and visitors, what should the city prioritize?
The city’s draft Comprehensive Parks and Recreation System Plan sets out to answer that question. The draft plan provides recommendations for improving existing amenities, developing new ones, and phasing out others. Produced by city staff, consultants, an appointed task force, and public comments gathered this spring, the plan is meant to guide the city’s park-related investments and decision-making for the next 5-15 years.
This Wednesday, city staff and consultants will present a summary of their draft recommendations and solicit feedback. Parts of the plan are still being written; city staff shared a rough draft with the Winona Post for this story. Winona Assistant Recreation Director Patrick Menton said that a complete draft of the plan will not be available for public review ahead of Wednesday’s meeting and may not be available until September or October. The plan is slated to be submitted to the City Council for approval in October. “The intent of Wednesday’s public meeting is to publicly review the high-level components of the plan, not the entire draft,” Menton stated.
The new park system plan comes amid a lot of changes and proposed changes to Winona parks. The city just cut the ribbon on a revamped portion of Levee Park, and it is currently making big investments in the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre. City staff proposed borrowing $5 million next year to fund a new senior center or all-ages community center, and city leaders are considering implementing the first phase of a proposed $1-million plan to upgrade Lake Park’s rose garden. The Park and Recreation Department staff was reorganized to create new positions: arts and culture coordinator and outdoor recreation coordinator. Prairie Island Campground got new managers and city-funded upgrades this year, the West Recreation Center’s Anthem skatepark has asked the city to reconsider the terms of its agreement, and Westfield Golf Course recently asked for city assistance in maintaining its grounds. City staff have floated the idea of closing some of the city’s playgrounds, and the City Council had a contentious discussion about shutting down Prairie Island Deer Park. Just down the road, the city opened a new dog park at Prairie Island.
With its towering bluffs and sprawling backwaters, some enthusiasts see outdoor recreation as a potential strong suit for Winona — something Rochester will never be able to match. The draft plan has several recommendations focused on the great outdoors. It calls for the city to look into developing a hiking trail that connects Sugar Loaf to Garvin Heights to Holzinger Trails (also known as Bluffside Park), including the potential acquisition of land for new trails. The plan suggests developing backcountry camping sites at Sugar Loaf, Aghaming Park, and Prairie Island. The draft plan discusses removing the deer park at Prairie Island and establishing beginner mountain-bike and hiking trails. It also calls for the construction of a “paddle sports hub” for boat rentals at Prairie Island and suggests that the city support outfitting companies that would service paddling in Aghaming Park, as well.
Better human-powered access to parks and interconnection between parks has been a common theme in recent years and appears prominently in the draft plan. Improving pedestrian and bicycle access across Highway 61 would benefit Lake Park, and a bike lane along Riverview Drive and Prairie Island Road would help Prairie Island, the plan suggests.
The plan includes detailed recommendations for the city’s numerous neighborhood parks. Gillmore Valley has two. The draft plan suggests renovating the tennis court and volleyball court at one of the parks, while the plan discusses either making improvements to the other or, possibly, selling it for residential development.
At Gabrych Park and Sobieski Park, the city’s draft plan suggests adding pedestrian improvements, such as crosswalks or speed bumps, and opening the Gabrych Park ballfield to public use. The draft plan also floats the idea of closing the block of Seventh Street that divides the two adjacent parks.
Bob Welch Aquatic Center needs numerous repairs, according to city staff. The draft parks plan does not contemplate big changes to amenities or programming at the pool, but recommends many repairs, including fixing plumbing problems, patching exterior walls, regrading and repaving the parking lot, and replacing electrical equipment.
Winona City Council member Pam Eyden has been pushing the city to improve park restrooms, and the draft plan includes recommendations to provide cleaner bathrooms, and, in some places, providing year-round bathrooms, not just portapotties.
The draft plan also includes some discussion of conservation, and calls on the city to combat erosion of bluffs and shorelines, transition some mowed lawns to native plants, and improve water quality at Lake Winona.
How should the city fund all of this? Winona Parks and Recreation Community Services Director Chad Ubl said that the draft plan will recommend pursuing all funding options, from seeking out grants and private donations to considering a local sales tax or bonding.
Regarding the question of what projects the city should fund first, the draft plan advises, “Allocate park improvements into a long-term capital improvement plan and use a maintenance and replacement schedule to keep neighborhood parks facilities up to date. Determine a system level of service (LoS) and budget, schedule, and hire staff to support the LoS.” In other words, the current draft of the Comprehensive Parks and Recreation System Plan recommends that the city come up with a long-term plan for funding. An additional chapter on funding is still be written, according to city staff. When she pushed for the city to develop this comprehensive parks plan, Winona City Council member Michelle Alexander had hoped it would be a long-term funding plan that set priorities for which projects to fund when.
The new plan would replace a chapter on parks in the city’s 2007 comprehensive plan. The city has achieved some of the goals in that old plan, but not others. The old plan calls for the development of a public swimming beach, the construction of a riverfront bike trail tracing the entire length of the Mississippi River in Winona, and the creation of a citizen-led parks committee that would meet regularly to make recommendations on park-related issues. The new plan briefly mentions improving the Latsch Island beach or creating a beach at Lake Winona. It discusses extending the dike bike path east of Levee Park and calls for bike lanes along Riverview Drive, but does not discuss a full-length riverfront trail. The new plan discusses the need for public engagement and suggests creating a “community roundtable for organizations interested in contributing to park and recreation goals.” In its current draft, the new plan does not include recommendations for a parks committee.
The city is hosting an open house to go over highlights of the draft plan and solicit public comments this Wednesday, August 15, from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at Lake Lodge at Lake Park. There will be opportunities for citizens to comment online after the meeting, as well. This is the chance for all kinds of Winonans to weigh in, Menton said. “We want to make sure the people that may not be represented [yet] are heard,” he added. “We need as much public input as possible,” Ubl stated.
More information, including a link to online comment forms, is available at www.cityofwinona.com under “Public Open House.”