Like other river towns, Winona is trying to revitalize its downtown area. But the town's industrial past makes transforming its downtown a challenge.
"This is a very friendly town, very friendly town. We're so glad that we came here," said Robert Howman, a faculty member at Winona State University who recently moved from Green Bay, Wis. "But it isn't reflected in the buildings."
Howman said downtown Winona is a hodgepodge of vacant lots, some dilapidated old buildings and newly renovated historic sites.
Developer Peter Shortridge said there's another problem — not enough housing and mixed-use development along the riverfront. A stretch of industrial buildings slices between downtown and the river.
"Winona kind of has this break, both in terms of a fence and railyard, and it hasn't really been dealt with and it needs to be," he said.
Even so, Shortridge said, Winona has a lot going for it. It's a scenic location tucked between the Mississippi River and the bluffs; it has three college campuses, a skilled workforce and plenty of industry.
So Shortridge and a partner were willing to bet $2.5 million that renovating a historic building would pay off.
It's a onetime grocery warehouse known as the Latsch building. The 125-year-old structure has a prime location in the heart of downtown, two blocks from the river. Its freshly painted, bright-red brick exterior and tall arched windows grab a visitor's eyes.
Shortridge said the renovation has been a challenge.
"At one point, there was another building here. And then this building was built around it, probably around 1890," he explained. "So there still was an old back door, which now is an inside brick wall."
The Latsch building renovation is just one of many improvements underway in Winona, a city of 28,000. Once complete, it'll house a credit union, a sporting goods store and other businesses.
City leaders say there are more downtown projects happening now than in the last three decades. Developers completed the first 16-unit downtown condo building this year; MnDOT is working on a new, $170 million bridge across the river to Wisconsin; the city has committed more than $600,000 to improve the area near the base of the bridge, as well as a riverfront park; and the Port Authority set aside a quarter-million dollars for downtown projects.
Mayor Mark Peterson said Winona is trying to catch up with other nearby river towns, like Red Wing, Wabasha and La Crosse, Wis., which have long focused on revitalizing their downtowns.
"There are things that we want in the downtown that we don't have now," Peterson said. "Parking is an issue and is going to be an issue if we encourage more and more people to work downtown and live downtown."
Many downtown businesses cater to college students who live and work nearby. But as Chamber of Commerce Director Della Schmidt put it, the city needs more upscale housing, entertainment and dining options, too.
Schmidt said it's difficult for people between the ages of 35 and 50 to find a place "to gather on a Friday or Saturday night for a drink and some conversation and maybe a little music. So grown-up places is going to be an important part of the mix."
Winona has a lot of regional competitors seeking private economic development investment. In Rochester alone, the Destination Medical Center initiative hopes to attract at least $6 billion over two decades to transform that city's downtown.
But developer Shortridge said Winona's dozens of historic buildings give the city a little-known advantage over towns trying to lure new construction.
"There are tax credits for some of these rehabs right now," Shortridge said. "And that's a component, along with some other things the city and the Port Authority are trying to do to try and stimulate redevelopment, new development and restoration of the older buildings."