Amending a legacy

Sales-tax increase dedicated to funding natural, cultural resources has had huge impact in Winona area
2013-12-01T00:00:00Z 2013-12-01T15:18:29Z Amending a legacyBy Nathan Hansen nathan.hansen@winonadailynews.com Winona Daily News

Colette Hyman never would have been able to finish her book about Dakota women without support from Minnesota's Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment.

The Winona State University professor and author of "Dakota Women's Work: Creativity, Culture and Exile" said that in today's era of tight budgets, local resources just weren't available to help her with the research and analysis the book required.

But with Legacy funding, including a nearly $7,000 grant to help with the final draft of the manuscript, the book was published by the Minnesota State Historical Society Press in 2012.

“The Legacy Amendment proved critical,” Hyman said. “There was a lot of need and not a lot of local funding.”

The state’s voters approved the Legacy Amendment in 2008, which increased the sales tax 3/8 of 1 percent to fund a variety of needs, from protecting and restoring natural resources to supporting arts and culture.

The amendment, which turns five this year, has funneled more than $1 billion to projects across the state. That includes more than $81 million sent to natural-resources projects that Winona County is a part of, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars given to support arts and culture programming within the county.

Like Hyman, many of the groups that have received Legacy funding say the amendment has allowed them to fill needs and grow their organizations in ways they otherwise would never have been able.

A flourishing arts and culture scene

Great River Shakespeare Festival artistic director Doug Scholz-Carlson said after the recession hit in 2008, a lot of surrounding states' arts and cultural organizations took a big hit. That hasn't been the case for Minnesota and especially the Winona region -- and he credits a lot of that to the Legacy Amendment.

“In the rest of the country, they're jealous of the success of our arts and culture organizations,” he said. “We really didn't suffer the huge dips other states did.”

The festival was one of several organizations that benefited from state support. It received two years of institutional support from Legacy funds, in 2010 and 2011, and while the more than $45,000 was not a large amount of money compared to the festival's overall budget, it was a big help.

“It really saved us that year,” Scholz-Carlson said. “In other states, a lot of arts organizations died because of the recession.”

Minnesota Marine Art Museum executive director Andrew Maus said Legacy grants have allowed the museum to add educational and outreach components to complement exhibits and programs.

That includes a nearly $28,000 partnership with Riverway Learning Community, allowing the museum to hire community artists to do artwork with the charter schools' students, like painting, bookmaking and photography.

“The Legacy funds have enabled us to do things we wouldn't otherwise be able to do,” Maus said, adding: “Minnesota has always been a leader in arts and education.”

One of the largest grants awarded locally -- $156,000 -- helped the Winona County History Center restore the battlements on the old National Guard Armory building in 2012. Other preservation projects in the county include nominations for buildings to the National Historic Register and funding to inventory art and artifacts at Winona State University and the Winona County History Center.

Historical and cultural preservation projects have been a big component of local Legacy funding, said center director Mark Peterson, and the need for those kinds of projects continues to be strong.

Peterson, like other organization leaders, said the History Center project may not have come to fruition without the Legacy funding.

“They're helping groups and organizations with projects they couldn't afford otherwise,” he said. “We never would have been able to do a project like (the battlements) without the Legacy grant.”

A new steward for regional natural resources

Southeast Minnesota is one of the richest and most diverse regions of the state when it comes to plant and animal life. Because of the desire to protect that biodiversity, the region has been included in a number of larger Legacy-funded environmental projects.

Minnesota DNR public affairs official Harland Hiemstra said protecting southeast Minnesota’s natural resources is particularly critical because of their fragility. Area streams and bluffs are particularly susceptible to environmental and development struggles, and the region’s porous karst topography makes protecting groundwater a greater concern.

“People of the state of Minnesota put a high value on having a healthy outdoor environment,” Hiemstra said. “We want to do the best job we can to be good stewards.”

In one example, poor stewardship practices, exacerbated by the 2007 floods, left many natural trout streams in the region clogged with sediments. But Legacy funding has created opportunities for large-scale change, allowing organizations like the Minnesota chapter of Trout Unlimited to increase the number of miles of streams they repair and protect each year, in part by buying land from neighboring owners and turning it into public access.

“The need is huge,” Minnesota Trout Unlimited executive director John Lenczewski said. “We've done projects like this in the past. But the big difference with the Legacy Amendment is the scope.”

The Whitewater Wildlife Management Area has also benefited from several Legacy projects, manager Jon Cole said, like $300,000 in forest development money to help manage timber resources. More than 30 new acres of wild grass have also been planted as a result of Legacy projects.

Cole said grassland areas curb erosion and turn poor-quality farmland back into native prairie, which is good habitat for pheasant, turkey and deer. Healthier forests have similarly improved the environment and provided valuable wildlife habitat.

One of the biggest benefits, Cole said, is the ability to plan for the future. Funding from Legacy grants doesn't always have to be used immediately, so Cole said he can plan for projects well into the future.

“The Legacy funding is giving us a better long-term base,” he said. “It's letting us put funding back into our natural resources.”

An enduring legacy

With 20 years to go before it expires, the Legacy amendment and its funding programs will continue to have a big impact on the region's environmental and cultural resources.

Those involved say the Legacy funding is much more valuable than any single project it’s created, because together the projects provide greater value than the sum of their parts.

“The Legacy grants have given a lot of organizations the courage to try new things,” Scholz-Carlson said. “The real legacy is the arts scene is so much stronger and creative than if it wouldn't have come along.”

“Southeast Minnesota is becoming more and more of a destination,” Lenczewski said. “It all fits together. The more we get done, the more benefit there will be.”

Winona Mayor Mark Peterson agreed, and said the amendment speaks volumes about Minnesotans’ values.

“It's an amazing testament to the people of Minnesota that when the economy tanked, people voted to tax themselves to go towards environmental, arts and cultural projects.”

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