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Dredging project muddies debate over Wal-Mart site
By Jeff Dankert
Winona Daily News

With a 225,000-square-foot Menards store up and running and news of a possible Wal-Mart Supercenter opening up next door, the city's stated plans for Riverbend Industrial Park have materialized quickly.

Squeezed for development space and applying a standard that commercial growth is needed to sustain an economy, Winona aggressively pursued a dredge-and-fill project to create commercial land.

From 1999 to 2001, 1.6 million cubic feet of sand and silt were dredged from Lake Winona and dumped on land owned by the Winona Port Authority and on 13 of 27 acres owned by Badger Foundry. The Badger land, which is now owned by Menards, is a part of the 106 acres in Riverbend now covered by sand and sediment dredged from the lake.

The filled land was designed for something the size of Menards with room to spare. And along came Wal-Mart, which has its eye on 20 acres of the land once owned by Badger and now owned by Menards. News of the giant retailer's plans has upset some Winona business owners and residents.

"Wal-Mart is a global vacuum cleaner that sucks profits out of local communities and transfers that wealth into its centralized self," Winona County Commissioner Dwayne Voegeli, a member of a group organized in opposition to the proposed store, said in a recent e-mail.

The Arkansas-based company operates about 3,200 Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores in the United States and another 1,200 stores worldwide, including outlets in Germany, Great Britain, Brazil, Argentina and Korea. In the 12-month period that ended April 30, it reported revenue of about $248 billion and earnings of $8.1 billion.

When it comes to debating the merits of Wal-Mart coming to Winona, city officials have remained detached from the fracas. The Port Authority forged a development agreement with Menards, requiring the Eau Claire, Wis.-based home-improvement chain to develop its Riverbend land into retail stores.

With the ink dried and set on that agreement, the city feels obligated to work with Menards and Wal-Mart, said Judy Bodway, Winona director of economic development and Port Authority assistant executive secretary.

"As long as they meet all of our codes and requirements we'll just continue to work with them," she said. "In the development agreement, (Menards) must have other retailers. We don't specify who those have to be, but we require that they have other retailers."

Menards bought 42 acres of land in Riverbend -15 acres from the Port Authority and 27 acres from Badger Foundry. Menards built its store on the 15 acres and convinced Wal-Mart to sign a purchase agreement for 20 acres of the former Badger property.

The remaining seven acres in a strip along Frontenac Drive is to be sold by Menards to smaller retailers.

The road to a possible Wal-Mart began in the fall of 1998. Winona voters approved, 58 percent to 42 percent, a local option half-percent sales tax and $20 car sales fee to fund a massive public works project to dredge sediment from East Lake Winona and fill lowlands in Riverbend.

Tax and fee collection began in April 1999 and ended Dec. 31, 2002, accruing $4.6 million.

Work began in 1999. Contractors cleared 70 acres of forest from Riverbend. J.F. Brennan Co. of La Crosse, Wis., began dredging the lake and depositing sediment in Riverbend.

In late 1999, the city amended its dredge permit so Iowa developer Wendell Corey could pay to pump 400,000 cubic yards of sediment from the lake to fill the Badger Property. The Winona Port Authority authorized spending $337,560 to further build up a 10-acre pond in Riverbend to store the extra fill material.

Corey wanted to buy Badger's 27 acres and build a $25 million shopping mall. But by late 2000 he backed out and in stepped Menards.

While the filling of land for Menards was supported by taxpayers through the half-percent sales tax, Menards paid to fill the 27-acre Badger property.

Before Menards could develop the Badger property, Badger had to settle environmental problems with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. From 1982 to 1997, Badger disposed of casting material on 13 acres of wetlands. It paid the state a $175,000 fine and agreed to clean up the site.

To help cap the illegal dump with pavement so that water does not leach toxins into groundwater, the Minnesota Department of Trade and Economic Development approved a $993,375 grant to the city, in what's commonly called a brown field grant.

The city has until Dec. 31 to cap the Badger site with pavement, Bodway said, and the grant will be received to offset the expense once the city spends the money.

State environmental guidelines for containing and de-watering dredge sediment were imposed on the city. So when a dredge storage pond in Riverbend broke open twice in the fall of 2001 and spilled mud, it was the city that was fined $40,000 by the state, not Brennan or Menards.

Menards opened its store in April. To the east, 50 acres of Port Authority land also was filled with taxpayer-supported dredge material and awaits future industrial development, which could begin next year, Bodway said.

To the south of Menards, the Port Authority also owns eight acres of filled land that could be developed.

If Wal-Mart is built, its main entrance likely would be off of Frontenac Drive, Bodway said. Options for more roads into Riverbend have been blueprinted, including a public street connecting Frontenac and Bruski Drive, she said.

At the corner of Mankato Avenue and Frontenac Drive, Walgreens is close to buying a parcel owned by Winona County Recorder Bob Bambenek and erecting one of its drugstores, Bodway said.

"We anticipate they'll be in," Bodway said of Walgreens. "I would say in the not too distant future."

Between the Bambenek property and Winona National Bank at 840 Mankato Ave., 5.5 acres of residential property is owned by Gorman-Thompson Foods Inc.

Ernie Gorman and Tom Thompson, co-owners of Winona's Country Market and Midtown Foods grocery stores, bought the properties beginning in 1996. Gorman and Thompson used Menards dredge spoil to fill the land. They have never made public their intentions for the property.

"We have no public comment about anything," Thompson said Friday.

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