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WINONA - Officials here may soon enter into the initial design stages for a new police station, despite concerns from some residents over how much it will cost — and that it will take the focus off ongoing community issues, such as a shortage of housing and mental health help.

The city of Winona and Winona County are looking into jointly building a new law enforcement center for the area, replacing its current decades-old facility within the next few years. A new building could cost more than $20 million, though local officials hope some of that money will come from future state funding.

It's taken several years to get to this point, however. Winona has faced a few false starts, mounting infrastructure concerns and funding challenges that made the process even more complex for elected officials and residents alike.

Local officials say building a new station is necessary to maintain Winona's police resources for the future.

"We're not looking at a project that's five, 10 years down the road," Winona City Council Member Jerome Christenson said Monday during a city/county meeting to discuss police station options. "We're looking at something that's generational. This is no time for us to be worried about nickels and dimes."

Some residents are pushing back, arguing that the Winona area needs more mental health and community supports rather than beefing up police.

"The focus is on 'the cops need this huge, huge facility,'" said Katie Mueller-Freitag. "Meanwhile Winona County has a huge housing crisis and we've yet to see them put energy in that. It's kind of a slap in the face."

Mueller-Freitag is part of the Winona chapter of Community Not Cages, a progressive collective aimed at changing public safety to focus less on jail time and punitive measures and more on human services and outreach.

Community Not Cages led a campaign against Winona's 2022 attempt to tear down a local community center and build a new large-scale public safety facility that would have housed police, firefighters and the local ambulance service. City officials abandoned that idea after public outcry from residents.

Recent state funding added another wrinkle. Winona received $7.5 million last year to offset design costs for a new building, but that money can only be used for a new police station or a new fire station, not a combination of the two.

The city and county appear to favor continuing to operate a joint law enforcement center rather than having Winona build its own facility or renovating the current station for at least $5 million.

Officials last summer unveiled a proposed $33 million to $38 million building that included an indoor gun range and parking, as well as fitness and training space. They've since backed off the proposal in favor of a trimmed-down version.

They're also looking into housing the county's license center in a new law enforcement center and potentially including space for partnerships with local mental health providers.

Some residents oppose tying other services to a new police station, arguing that the reputation of local law enforcement will make some people reluctant to seek out services.

"It isolates people in our community," said Tova Strange, another community organizer. "This community since 2020 has been very vocally asking for investments in community resources, not in institutions."

At least one elected official opposes building a new facility. County Commissioner Marcia Ward argued that existing empty building space that could be repurposed rather than building another police station. She also pointed out Winona County is trying to avoid raising property taxes by asking voters this fall to approve a sales tax referendum to pay off bonds for the county's newly built jail.

"That's really problematic for me," Ward said. "Timing is everything."

The council and county board are expected to revisit the issue later this spring. If the city and county agree to pursue a new police building, local officials will start working on building design options and site selection.

Ultimately, the area has put off making a decision for too long, according to Winona Mayor Scott Sherman. He favors building a new station, arguing that the current building has too many glaring issues.

"This will only get more expensive the longer we wait," he said.