First of all, WELCOME to my new little corner on Visit Winona’s new digs. I hope you take a look around, because there are some cool updates, and Visit Winona is rocking a pretty sweet website right now. Also, if you are one of my old-school followers who are subscribed to the blog from before this moment, do me a favor and re-enter your email address in the subscription spot underneath the archives column. The reason is that you are currently shadow people, and that’s creepy. Ha. Just kidding; it’s not creepy, but I can no longer see any of you, and I have NO control over the emails you are getting. Like, for example, if one of those old subscription services starts spraying old blogs at you in the middle of the night, I can’t protect you. Not that it would hurt you – you could just read them again or delete them or something, but you get my drift.
Another reason you want to be on my new subscription list is that I have every intention of randomly giving away goodies to followers drawn from that subscription list – starting with today – and trust me when I say you want this stuff. On Sunday night (July 12), I’m going to access the subscription list for this blog and let a randomizer pick somebody to win two ticket vouchers to the Great River Shakespeare Festival. But if you are on the old blog email list, then you are invisible – like ghosts who can see me and everything I write even though I can’t see you – which sounds like a good start for a horror movie…but I digress. Plus, we are waaaaaaay off the actual topic of this post which is, cleverly, why Winona is so freaking awesome.
So I had an interesting exchange with a young lady recently, and it got me to thinking. She had posted a comment in a social media forum saying that she had moved away from Winona as a teen and, after 13 years in California, was thinking about moving back. She addressed it to no one specifically, though she did post it on a Visit Winona channel which is manned (uh, womanned) by yours truly. But she penned that she had heard from her friends who still live here that Winona had gone down hill from the old days and changed for the worse, and that she was thinking about moving to Minneapolis instead.
That comment, of course, produced a dumb stare from me because I think it is the opposite – like the complete, polar opposite.
Funny story: I have been here for 20 years, and I will never forget my very first drive down Huff Street. It happened during an event that I think they called “Springfest,” and people were celebrating by building beer-can pyramids in their front yards. Big ones. Oh yeah, and the other thing is that all those beer cans were empty, having been drained into the bellies of rowdy young people. You can probably imagine the rest.
Fast forward 20 years and Springfest has long-since gone the way of the dinosaur. Our universities worked hard to make Winona the best place to study, not the best place to party, and the city put some ordinances in place to corral the madness. Before too long, it was pretty hard to find a place to do a keg stand in Winona. If that is what the poster’s friends meant by “changed for the worse,” well then yeah, for sure it was a huge change.
But along with it came a new mindset that took root, one that decided Winona, with its perfect location and its pristine scenery and its deep reservoir of arts lovers, could reinvent itself as an arts and recreation mecca in the Midwest. Piece by piece some movers and shakers laid the groundwork for this, courting the brain-trust behind the Great River Shakespeare Festival and creating the foundation for the Minnesota Beethoven Festival. Both events were so ambitious that it hardly seemed at the time that they had any business in a community of 27,000 people, but the creators were undaunted. Using every bit of an “if we build it, they will come” mentality, the festivals started, and then so did the Frozen River Film Festival, the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, the Dakota Gathering, Mid West Music Fest, and Boats and Bluegrass… and before long, Winona was the coolest town for 100 miles.
These attractions draw many thousands of visitors to Winona, but sometimes local folks don’t realize how outsiders view this city, or how outrageous it is that one little place can be blooming with amenities that make our metropolitan neighbors jealous. Heck, in the last year we were named the #2 small city in the country by Nerdwallet, a finance think-tank, plus we were named one of Minnesota’s most beautiful towns by Culture Trip and a bunch of other publications, and we have been dubbed home of the best doughnut in the world by pretty much everybody. Food critics love our new restaurant, the Boat House, bicycling magazines love our trails, and everyone loves the drive through Winona on Highway 61. In fact, in 2014, Winona had something like 123 press mentions (yeah, I counted) in everything from national magazines to regional newspapers. If I could be so bold, we are the sweetheart of the Midwest, and a whole lot of people are having a love affair with Winona.
Every now and then, however, I talk to a local person who is relatively oblivious to both Winona’s impressive offerings and its stardom among Midwestern cities. I figure it’s because sometimes it’s hard to have fresh eyes when you live in a place for a long time, work at a job for a long time, or are married to the same person for a long time (haha – I’m just KIDDING – don’t send me letters). But seriously, if locals could see Winona through the eyes of tourists, I think they’d be pretty dazzled.
Like…is there anyone who isn’t slack-jawed the first time they see this?
Come on. It’s insanely beautiful. But I bet it’s been a while since most local folks walked out to the look-out on Garvin Heights. What we need is one of those body-switch days like Jamie Lee Curtis and some girl who played her daughter had in Freaky Friday (OK, kind of a terrible movie, but you see where I’m going here…) when all the locals wake up and are tourists here for one day. And maybe the tourists could wake up as locals and know where the most beautiful buildings and the best breakfasts are. Actually, there is no need for that, because this new Visit Winona website gives visitors everything they need to know, and even gives them an option to “Ask a Local” if there’s something the site doesn’t cover. Ask away, and we’ll get the answer from a local expert and email it to you. But if you are wondering where you can get in on a keg stand, we’re probably not going to be able to help you because, for one, they are few and far between these days, and two, because we’re old and not exactly sure what a keg stand even is.
Don’t forget to sign up for the blog over there on the right. Maybe I’ll be emailing you with some goodies!