A lifelong Winona resident, Winona City Council member Michelle Alexander expressed a deep love for the town that nurtured her and she hopes to give back by being elected mayor this fall.
Due to a potential exposure to COVID-19, which she has since tested negative for, Alexander was forced to miss last week’s League of Women Voters forum and self-isolate.
Here are Alexander’s answers to some of the questions that were asked at the forum.
Primary elections will be held on Tuesday, Aug. 11.
If you are elected, what are the first priorities you would like to address?
When I ran for office 10 years ago, one of my platform pieces was the revitalization of downtown Winona. I helped start the Main Street program, and some of our community events like Big Muddy Brew ‘n Que and Touch a Truck, so the downtown is very near and dear to my heart and I would really like to prioritize completing a plan, and a vision, for how that whole area of our community will (be laid out), from Levee Park all the way back down to Broadway. I think that whole hub of the town is really going to revitalize the whole community. You can see it and feel it when you’re here — how it’s shaping our future. I really want to be a part of formalizing what the next 20 years looks like for downtown Winona.
Affordable housing in Winona is known issue. What goals would you propose to council and staff to make progress on finding cooperative solutions to helping both investors and buyers?
I think if we as a council keep encouraging development of single-family homes, and of these larger developments for moderate to low-income and then senior housing, we’re going to see houses open up that become more available for those who actually want to own a home versus live in a co-operative or an apartment-type setting. So I think if we keep on the road we’re on, if we keep working with those developers to find the right pieces of land that fit the plan and the size they need, I think we’re going to see in the next four or five years that we’re going to make a lot of progress on addressing that affordable housing issue.
Considering the current pandemic and its significant social and economic effects on our community, what advantages do you think Winona has to ensure people’s health and safety? What needs to be a priority in the actions of our city’s elected leaders?
I’m extraordinarily proud of our city. I think most people, in general, do things that are community-minded. When you go out, most people don’t have a problem wearing a mask if they’re required to. ... The city has done its part, too, by opening up small business loans and lightening up on ordinances and restrictions and allowing people to have incursions into the roadways and shutting down streets and trying to meet businesses where we can best help them serve the community so they don’t lose income (or) business and the community can still have access to things that make living here pleasurable.
I think a lot of what is going to happen in the future with the city leadership is going to be determined as we move forward. It’s an in-flux situation; everyday it seems like the information and the details we have change. I think the council, the mayor and the city staff, as well as the community, are going to have to take it as it comes and be willing to adjust on the fly, because we don’t always know exactly the recommendations or ordinances (that) might be put on us by the federal or state level. So I think it’s just going to take creativity and a strong partnership, which is something Winona has a history of doing. Like my grandfather always told me, in the ’65 flood, Winona was the town that saved itself, and I feel like we’re still that community and that is what we will do in this situation, too.
Being a mayor is being a leader of a team. Provide an example of a team that you have worked on and describe your personal strengths and areas for improvement when working on a team?
I’m chairperson in (the Winona International Friendship Association) and it’s the program that oversees our two sister city programs, both in Japan and Poland. For the last year-and-a-half, (Winona State University) president Scott Olson, Tim Breza and myself have been working to bring the Kashubian Capital Centennial to Winona, which is to bring musicians, artisans and master lecturers from all over the Polish region, where our immigrants came from, to introduce ancient arts and music to Winona and allow us to explore that part of our heritage here. With the pandemic, that got shifted to 2021.
What I did there with Tim, in particular, is we found extraordinary community partners and individuals who came alongside us to help us make this vision a reality. We found people who were creative, had their own gifts and talents and pockets of volunteers they could reach out to. I think that is one of my strengths — finding the people who are willing to buckle down and do the work, who will commit to it, and then will run with that plan on their own.
Winona has a unique mix of public and private education institutions. What type of partnerships with the school district should the city have, if any?
I am a strong proponent of each governmental entity that has elected officials governing themselves. That being said, whenever there is a possibility for nonprofits or community partners or businesses to work together to the benefit of the whole community, they should do that. ... Sometimes it can be in discussions of reuse of buildings or partnership in use of buildings, and all of that stuff can happen. ... The school districts are very much focused on the educational aspect of youth, which is not something the city is specifically involved in. But I think those conversations about how to serve populations with some of our athletic or park and rec programming is always a positive.
What newer development requirements for future city land expansion do you think should have a high priority?
I think when we redo the comprehensive plan, some of those details will be fleshed out. When we did the Unified Development Code, we understood that what we set may need to be adjusted, improved or modified because we were setting a box of limits on things without having the broader scope of how it was going to fit into a new comprehensive plan. Whereas when we go into 2021, we’ll be updating that comprehensive plan, we’ll have an enormous amount of community input, not only from our commissions and boards, but from the community as a whole. I think that will help shape how we talk about future developments, where they’ll be, what kind we want and where they should sit.
What skills do you bring to the table to be able to evaluate budgets and make recommendations?
In what I call my “real-life job,” I’m a chief financial officer for our multi-partner LLC, and my job is to do the budgeting and the taxing and to look at projects and (see) how we want to spend money over the course of the next five years and (see if) we will make improvements to our infrastructure.
I’ve served on multiple boards and committees. ... In all of those things, part of what I am doing is looking at the overall budget and trying to determine how best to serve the community we’re serving without going over budget and being able to raise the funds, or save the funds we need, to make the plans that are most important to that community of people happen. I think I bring a lot of experience.
Do you believe that racism in Winona is a problem that should be addressed?
I think, unfortunately, wherever you have people, you have racism, bigotry, fear of the unknown and hatred of difference. Those are things that we always need to be aware of and address as we become aware of them. My parents raised me with that golden rule that you treat others as you want to be treated, and that’s how I try to live my life. As mayor, more importantly, you want to look at how the city’s attitudes and behaviors are affecting the community. One of the things I can say I’m very happy about is that our city staff is phenomenal, and in my 10 years on council, I have not received a complaint from one community member about being treated with racism or hatred or any of those types of things that would lead you to think that maybe they’re (experiencing) behaviors or attitudes that are not appropriate, and I hope that as we move forward as a city I can always claim that. The city needs to lead by example and, right now, I feel like they do a very good job.
I grew up in Winona. I love this town. I graduated from Winona Senior High School, graduated from Winona State University and built a small business here. This is where I chose to live my life, where I volunteer and where I have built a life for myself. I have nothing but the deepest love for this town, which is why I want to serve and why I have served. I’m really hoping that I can bring my creativity, experience and passion for this town to the role of mayor. So I’m asking for that opportunity to serve and that you’ll vote for me on Aug. 11.
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