Setting the Bar on Small City (and Big City) Greatness

So I was in New York City recently and all I can say is wow, Winona, you’ve got it going on. I’m going to be so bold as to say that, per square foot and per capita, Winona is standing straight-up toe-to-toe with the Big Apple.

I know what you’re thinking – New York is so historic, so iconic, so cultural, so… New York City. So how could Winona or anywhere else possibly compare?

Well I’ll tell you:

All great cities need an icon, right? So Statue of Liberty, meet Princess Wenonah, a beautifully carved sculpture of a Dakota Indian maiden who stands in the center of Windom Park downtown. With an arm raised to shield her eyes from the sun she wistfully scans the distance for what is said to be her true love, and she represents the very underpinnings of this historic Native American land.

Broadway would do well to have a production company like the Great River Shakespeare Festival, a seasonal theater company that brings in professional actors from across the country for national-caliber performances each summer. AND the very cheapest nosebleed seats in the back of most theaters on Broadway are going to set you back more than $95, with good seats easily costing many hundreds. At GRSF, the very best seats in the house are $49, and you can see any show for the pocket change of $25. Really, really good theater has never been cheaper.

Orchestra Hall boasts some of the best classical music performances in the world, but so does the Beethoven Festival each summer in Winona. Seriously. But you say you can see Yo-Yo Ma at Orchestra Hall? Yeah, he was here too. And the Boston Brass, and Midori, and the Shanghai Quartet and… you get the point. You can catch all those folks in New York City too, but it’s going to cost you five times as much and you’ll need binoculars to see what they’re wearing.

Metropolitan Museum of Art gets a serious run for its money from the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, a graceful museum on the banks of the Mississippi River where visitors can see the work of some of the undisputed best artists in history. Stand three feet away from Picasso, wonder at the use of light and color by Van Gogh, marvel at works by Homer, Glackens and Bellows. If this museum was in New York City it would be packed full of gawking tourists every single day. And, for the record, they would have shelled out an awful lot more money to be there because adult admission at MMAM is $7. Are you kidding me?

And people pay a small fortune to go to the top of Rockefeller Center or the Empire State Building for a view that sweeps for miles, but gazing for miles from the overlook of Garvin Heights is absolutely free, and incredibly beautiful.

Ellis Island documents the history of immigrants, but so does the Winona County History Center in their lovely landmark building downtown. I swear that square foot for square foot, the historical society has more exhibits, more resources and more information about life in this corner of the world and beyond. And a few years ago the building received a $4 million addition using creative vision and lots of salvaged old-growth white pine from an old Winona livery stable, which turned it into an absolute showpiece of a facility. And you don’t even have to take a boat to get there.

But what about Central Park, you say? Hello – have you seen Lake Park? A historic bandshell, flowering trees, great playgrounds and a really nice path for getting around – it’s practically a mini-Central Park. OK, well we don’t have the bicycle taxis or Strawberry Fields, but that’s about it. We’ll work on it.

And you won’t have to mortgage your house to eat and drink in Winona. True story: a meal at a diner near Time Square that included a hamburger and fries, a chef salad, macaroni and cheese, two sodas and a beer rolled in with a tab of $86 not including the tip. No kidding. It was enough to make me choke on a fry. In Winona at a vibrant and historic eatery like Bub’s Brewing Co. that meal would have been less than $35 with an extra tip for the nice waitress.

Sure, to be fair, New York City has some charms that you can only find there, and millions of tourists a year flock to the Big Apple to take them in. But if you are looking for a vacation in a place steeped in history, rich with culture and that won’t set you back an arm, leg, house payment and your next two vacation budgets, allow me to suggest Winona. I promise you’ll see once you get here why we really are our own smaller but equally charming version of the best New York City has to offer.

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