New committee works to revitalize downtown Winona

Published On: Feb 13 2013 06:51:51 PM CST   Updated On: Feb 13 2013 07:04:27 PM CST
WINONA, Minn. -- -

The beauty of small towns is often found in the historic buildings that line the downtown streets, but those buildings are also a major hurdle when it comes to growing a vibrant community.

It's one reason why Winona is kicking off a new committee to help attract businesses to downtown buildings that are often in need of some extra maintenance.

Renae Ahrens, owner of Inside the Vault says it wasn't cheap to turn an old downtown Winona building into the shop it is today.

"You're talking in the thousands of dollars when you have to reconstruct space that's here, redo it," said Ahrens. "But every penny was worth it."

Ahrens moved her store to the new location, on Third Street in Winona, at the beginning of the month, but other downtown storefronts aren't so lucky.

"We have a lot of vacant buildings. Currently, we have a lot of buildings that fit within that 1870 to mid-1920s time frame," said Winona City Council member Michelle Alexander.

With the history comes two main challenges for businesses owners: the cost to renovate and city zoning laws that make it difficult to convert the building for new uses.

Both are reasons why the two floors above Inside the Vault remain empty.

"All the new zoning and codes have to come into play, which might mean electrical upgrades and an elevator in the building that would have to be updated, so all those add a huge expense," said Ahrens.

It's a problem City Council Member Michelle Alexander says the newly formed Downtown Main Street Steering Committee will be working to fix.

"Obviously, part of what the Main Street program is going to do is take someone who's not on either side of the issue and find some common ground. It might include meeting with the city zoning and inspection department and helping this owner be realistic about what they can accomplish and help the city side come up with a compromise," said Alexander.

While compromise is sometimes hard to come by, Ahrens is confident it can be found.

"We have a great city council, and hopefully they will be able to see other people's visions and be able to bend a little bit and work with the people who want to invest in downtown Winona," said Ahrens.

The Downtown Main Street Steering Committee has been in the works for two years.

Alexander says the members on the committee will be going through training in March and are looking forward to finding new ways to revitalize downtown Winona.

Winona already offers some programs to help businesses renovate the outsides of historic downtown buildings.

The Downtown Main Street Steering Committee will also work to help business owners find which programs they qualify for.