Funds can only be used to construct clock tower

By AMANDA SEXTON FERGUSON,

More than a decade ago, the City of Winona brought the clock that once graced the top of the old Montgomery County Courthouse home. 

Since the courthouse was demolished in the late 1970s, the clock had served as the centerpiece inside a shopping mall in Wisconsin until the mall closed.  After hearing of plans to demolish the building, Winona Mayor Jerry Flowers contacted the Green Bay, Wisconsin mayor and asked if the city could purchase the clock and return it to Winona.

Initially, the cost of the clock was $75,000, but Flowers negotiated the purchase price to just $10,000.  Local residents began raising money to erect a new clock tower to house the former landmark.  It would be an expensive undertaking, much more than the city could afford.  In addition, there was an ongoing debate about where in the city the clock tower would be constructed – downtown Winona, at the Montgomery County Courthouse, at Winona City Hall, or at the intersection of Highway 82 and Middleton Road.

As the years passed, a group of Winona business leaders decided to head up fundraising efforts to build the clock tower, and they enlisted the help of Senator Lydia Chassaniol (R-Winona) in their fundraising efforts.  The group decided to plan construction of the clock tower in downtown Winona on Front Street.  They felt erecting the clock would also prime efforts for a downtown revitalization and beautification movement.

Chassaniol, who has worked with several historic preservation projects such as the Cotesworth Heritage and Culture Center, suggested architect Belinda Stewart of Eupora draw up plans for the clock tower as well as provide an estimated cost of the project for the group, which refers to itself as the Clock Committee, to establish a goal for fundraising efforts. 

Stewart designed an elaborate and soaring clock tower that would arch over Front Street at the Summit Street intersection, allowing traffic to travel under it.  The tower will also feature steps up each side to allow pedestrians to climb to a platform underneath the clock to view all of downtown.  It can also be used as a stage for various special events held downtown.

Chassaniol said the old-world and unique design would be a draw for those traveling through the area in the same way other landmarks drew visitors around the state and the region. As chair of the Mississippi Senate’s Tourism Committee, Chassaniol is a longtime proponent for historical and cultural tourism in small communities around the state, and the clock tower, she said, is something people would visit the city to see.

Stewart estimated the cost of constructing the clock tower to be around $500,000, an enormous expense for a small municipality like Winona, however, there are grant opportunities for projects such as these.

Several months ago, the clock tower design was presented to the Winona Mayor and Board of Aldermen by Clock Committee chairman Frank Weed.  City leaders were skeptical about the expense of constructing the tower, but Weed said his committee was looking into funding options.  A few months later, he returned and asked the board’s permission to pursue grant funding on behalf of the city for the tower’s construction.  He also shared some news.

The State of Mississippi had allocated $250,000 in the 2019 Legislative Session to go toward the construction of the clock, thanks to the efforts of Chassaniol.  The funds were specifically allocated to the construction of the clock and no other project, Chassaniol said.

With fundraising halfway complete, the board approved the committee’s plan to seek other grant funding for the project, and with the help of Chris Pope at North Central Planning and Development District, the committee moved forward. 

A few weeks ago, the city received news that the clock tower project was awarded an additional $150,000 through the Small Municipality Grant through the Mississippi Development Authority.  That award has put the clock construction within reach.

This week, some Winona citizens shared their opposition of the clock tower project on social media, and they offered suggestions as to what that money could be used for in improving the city – road paving, school funding, youth park funding, school renovations, job creation, and so on.  Those are all great ideas, and funding ideas for those projects should be a priority.

However, the allocation from the Mississippi Legislature and the Small Municipality Grant can only be used to fund the clock tower construction.  Again, that funding is earmarked specifically for construction of a new clock tower in downtown Winona, and all expenditures for such a project must be reported to the funding agencies.

If the city elects not to construct the clock tower, those funds will have to be returned to the funding source, and that money will be redistributed to another municipality or county.  That is how grant funding works.

The clock tower project was the brainchild of a group of private citizens who joined together with the goal of constructing a clock tower for the old Montgomery County Courthouse clock.  They met in their own time, without oversight of the city, made a plan and presented their plan to city leaders.  This group of people were diligent in seeking funds to fulfill their goal of constructing the clock tower, and their hard work paid off.  They are within reach of seeing their vision become reality.

The new decorative street signs were funded by the city’s two percent tourism tax on prepared food in the city, and those funds are specifically for parks and recreation and the promotion of tourism, which would include city beautification.  If those funds were used for any other purpose like infrastructure improvements, the city would be violating state law.

A side note on beautification -- to clarify any misinformation out there, the city and county governments are forbidden from making improvements to private property.  Unless it is earmarked through grant funding or other government sanctioned programs, taxpayer dollars and resources cannot be used to improve vacant houses, make repairs to private property, or invest in private business.  If this occurs, any alderman or supervisor who voted for that particular measure are personally liable for repayment of these funds.

While some people feel that erecting a clock tower in downtown Winona is unnecessary, the members of the Clock Committee who have spent years – yes, years – working to make the project a reality feel it will not only add to ongoing efforts to revitalize the downtown, but it will provide something unique and beautiful for the entire community to enjoy.

My take on this so-called clock controversy?  Local citizens dreamed it.  They planned it.  They worked hard to achieve it.  And they made it happen.

We would all be better if we possessed a fraction of their ingenuity, steadfastness, and drive.

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