Fire-ravaged building owners in Winona weigh options
WINONA — Developers appear headed in opposite directions for how to proceed with two downtown Winona properties impacted by major fires in the last eight months.
The former YWCA building at 223 Center St. suffered $650,000 in damage during the Sept. 4, 2014, blaze that virtually destroyed the older half of the building occupied by KidSport Gymnastics Center, according to a recent report from the State Fire Marshal. The structure was valued at $2.2 million.
As city officials were still reeling from that blaze, a downtown bar called Mason Jar caught fire Feb. 6 just before last call. Patrons were rushed out the front door and occupants of the upstairs apartments were also evacuated.
Quick response from emergency responders has been credited for avoiding a tragic loss of life, but the difficult part is now deciding how to proceed with the fire-ravaged structures.
Dave McNally, owner of the YWCA building, was granted a variance request in December 2014 by the City of Winona that represents the first step toward turning the property into a 44-unit apartment complex. It's likely to be a mix of one and two-bedroom apartments aimed at college-age students.
Winona Mayor Mark Peterson says adding downtown housing is a key part of the city's comprehensive plan, particularly since it hosts thousands of students at Winona State University and Saint Mary's University.
An important step in that transition process was taken this week when the burned portion of the former YWCA building was torn down to create a new parking lot for future tenants.
Though plans appear to be proceeding toward a new apartment complex, Winona City Planner Mark Moeller said Wednesday that McNally has not yet applied for the necessary building permits to move forward with the rest of the renovation project. The variances are valid through December, Moeller said.
"I think he's going to do it, but it's taken him a while to really figure out what he wants to do," Moeller said.
Rather than wait to what McNally planned to do with his property, KidSport relocated to the Winona Mall just two weeks after the fire.
The Mason Jar conundrum is a little more problematic for city officials.
A spokeswoman from the State Fire Marshal's Office says a final fire report from the February event is not yet available, but city officials aren't content to sit and wait. The Winona City Council requested legacy grant funding April 6 in order to determine if the building can be saved. The bar, on the corner of First Avenue and Third Street East is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The city is seeking up to $10,000 for an engineer to perform a structural analysis.
"If this report comes back with something that says this building has serious structural issues, maybe it's not feasible," Moeller said. "On the other side of the coin, they may say the structure looks good so maybe we can just clean it out.
"We're keeping our fingers crossed. It's a corner lot right in the middle of our historic district, so we'd really hate to see it have to come down."
If the Mason Jar building is deemed to be structurally sound, the insurance check along with state and federal tax credits should be enough to reopen it at a later date.
Cha-Chis Mexican Grill was also damaged in the Mason Jar fire. Repairs are underway at the neighboring property, but it's not expected to reopen until this summer.