The Winona Friendship Center is a gem hidden in plain sight, on the first floor of the Masonic Building on 5th and Main.
As the only nationally accredited Senior Center in Minnesota, it attracts the 55-and-over crowd from Winona County and beyond, as well as nearby Wisconsin.
In June, the Friendship Center averaged 130 visits a day, and there are more than 30,000 visits a year. The Center partners with a broad array of local and regional organizations and institutions, including Winona Health, the Elder Network, Winona County, long-term care facilities, churches and individual instructors. Fifty WSU students are involved in internships and other programs at the center each semester, in the fields of nursing, sociology, exercise science, therapeutic recreation, gerontology and mass communication.
The Friendship Center needs a new home, because of a severe shortage of space to facilitate the impressive array of innovative programs offered to the community.
The large, respected, multi-disciplinary Midwest group ISG (architecture, engineering, environmental, planning), working out of its Bloomington office, conducted a thorough and unbiased study of the space needs of the Friendship Center and how they might be met.
The Center somehow manages to offer programming that requires a 19,000-square-foot facility in 9,500 square feet space. Although there is another 3,000 square feet of potential space available upstairs at the Masonic, that is obviously not nearly enough.
ISG studied the East End Rec Center as a potential new home, which would be shared with the current youth and community programs offered there now.
It has produced a conceptual plan that would meet the demonstrated needs of the Friendship Center as well as serve the current users of the space. This includes adding to and renovating the existing Rec Center. The concept is exciting and transforms the property into a multi-use, indoor and outdoor facility that will serve many residents of all ages. The plans can readily be viewed at the Friendship Center.
Outdoor features of the project include a playground; event space with a raised lawn for performances and green space for seating; a community garden; fire and games terraces; handicapped parking spaces; and many plantings. Inside the enlarged building are a full-sized gym; Wellness Center that is three times the size of the current inadequate, crowded space; larger restrooms; showers; a teaching kitchen; and four flexible-use activities rooms of different sizes that can be used to schedule the multitude of programs. This season (May through August) at the Friendship Center, four Special Events programs include an international speaker on Alzheimer’s and an inspirational older adult cross-country bicyclist.
Eighteen educational offerings cover a wide range of topics and include teleconferences from regional and national organizations, an RN’s presentations on substance abuse and vaping, health benefits of essential oils, and travel presentations and opportunities. The Beatriz Lab uses virtual reality technology to simulate the experiences of a person with dementia. Computer help is offered by one-on-one appointment. A Mississippi River boat cruise was enjoyed by a full house aboard the Cal Fremling, and community gardeners facilitated a collaborative wood-fired pizza event.
Six clubs meet regularly, focusing on hiking and biking, various crafts, writing, discussing books, and genealogy. Activity classes include yoga, Tai Chi, Nia, Zumba and fitness. There are also daily opportunities to play card games such as bridge, canasta and poker as well as dominoes, pool and other games.
In the newly renovated Rec Center, corridors and distinct activities spaces, as well as office spaces, will provide the physical separation needed to conduct classes without visitors experiencing the disruption of traffic moving through activities rooms to access other spaces. By providing adequate space for ongoing programming, the Center will certainly see increased usage.
Now is the time for the City Council to act on this initiative by approving a bonding measure.
Through national accreditation and consistently winning major grants, The Friendship Center staff has demonstrated that they deliver high-quality and innovative programming to older adults in our area.
A total of 27% of the population of Winona is 55 and older – this is a significant demographic. The city and county benefit when older adults continue to live independently, and the thriving Friendship Center supports this.
Many in this population pay property taxes on homes they own and shop locally at our businesses. They support Winona’s cultural offerings that make the area an attractive place for younger professionals and families to live.
Let’s invest in a new Friendship Center facility at the East End Rec Center location that can also continue to serve children and adult community members.
The freed space at the Masonic can then be repurposed to complement the upstairs performance venue into such uses as a restaurant, box office, office spaces for local arts organizations, exhibitions space or artists’ studio spaces – or a combination of some of those uses.
The arts community has no shortage of ideas about how to take advantage of the “arts corridor” location of the Masonic – the first floor is a prime location for arts-related uses that will draw attention to the performance offerings at the Masonic, and tie into the WSU Art and Design instruction and Galleries planned for the Laird Norton building next door.
The East End Rec Center location is better suited for a new Friendship Center, with adequate programming space, outdoor and green space, plenty of on-street parking in a quieter, less trafficked neighborhood.