Winona County officials remain optimistic about building new jail in time despite setback

WINONA, Minn. (WKBT)– Construction on a new jail for Winona County hit a major hurdle Friday. Confusion over project timelines between government agencies became clear during a public meeting.

In 2018, the Minnesota Department of Corrections ordered the jail to close on Sept. 30, 2021, due to a number of structural and operating issues. County officials held meetings, created recommendations and were looking for an architect and construction manager for a brand new jail. Those involved with the project were starting to base their plans on land near the current facility.

“Some of that land is owned by the Department of Transportation and the department no longer needs it cause it was obtained for the bridge [project],” said Justin Green, chair of the jail advisory committee.

But now, there are concerns that the land might not be secured in time, if ever. Representatives for MnDot at the meeting said they have to follow their own process for selling the land. Part of that procedure requires offering the land first to the previous owner.

“I think we thought that would happen in a matter of months, but it came clear to us that the process is quite extensive and it could take 18 months or more,” said Chris Meyer, vice-chair for the Winona County Board.

That’s about when they need to have the jail built, open and operating. Plus if they can’t even buy the land, they’ll need to look elsewhere.

“We’ll need to buy property outside of the city. That’s a whole process, plus an additional expense,” Meyer said.

Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman said they do have options to work with the previous owner if need be.

“There’s actually a pre-option which is to negotiate– to buy their first right of refusal from them,” Sonneman said.

They could also purchase the property from the previous owner or they could seek eminent domain.

“That has to go through a court proceeding and market value and all the procedures,” Sonneman said.

This is more time that they don’t have. But now that MnDOT has heard their concerns about the timeline, the county is hoping that the process will be sped up.

“That’s why this meeting is so important,” Sonneman said.

County officials remain optimistic that these other government agencies, especially the department of corrections, are willing to work with them.

“They don’t want to create a situation that causes lots of trouble for the county. They really want us to be successful,” Meyer said.

Now they’re waiting to get a solid timeline from MnDOT for just how long it could take with the next steps for the property. They are hoping to have that as soon as the coming days.

A Minnesota Department of Corrections official at the meeting did say that there was potential to extend the closure date on the jail. But that’s not certain and more work would have to be completed before that could be considered.