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State funding again proposed to help build new visitor center

By Kevin Boneske
Staff Writer

ASHWAUBENON – After state funding to help build a new visitor center in the Green Bay area wasn’t included in Gov. Tony Evers’ approved biennial budget, another effort has been introduced to provide a $2 million state grant for the project.

Evers was on hand for a press conference Monday, Aug. 26, at Hinterland Brewery in the Titletown District to announce his support of a measure backed by State Rep. Staush Gruszynski (D-Green Bay) and State Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) to provide the Experience Greater Green Bay Visitor Center the final funds for the estimated $7 million project.

“This bill will provide the final $2 million to fund the public-private partnership that will promote state, regional and local tourism in addition to highlighting job opportunities to Brown County’s 5.7 million annual visitors,” Gruszynski said. “We are thankful for the governor’s support, and I look forward to continuing to advocate for this project alongside the range of committed local stakeholders who joined us today.”

If approved by the State Legislature and signed by the governor, the measure would require the Greater Green Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) to raise at least $5 million from non-state revenue sources to receive the $2 million grant.

Three area Republican lawmakers who have previously backed state support for a visitor center weren’t at the press conference and had harsh words for the governor.

Partisan bickering followed with Democrats and Republicans blaming each other for the visitor center not receiving funding in the budget Evers approved with line-item vetoes.

When Evers introduced the biennial state budget earlier this year, it called for $2 million for the CVB to build a new visitor center in Ashwaubenon near Interstate 41 and Lombardi Avenue off of Argonne Street.

However, when the State Legislature rewrote the budget bill, instead of specifically calling for that project to receive $2 million, there was $25 million included for the State Building Commission to authorize non-state construction projects.

The visitor center may have been one of the projects to receive funding in a competitive process for grant money with each grant not to exceed $5 million.

Evers then partially vetoed that provision, retaining $3 million for the Incourage Community Foundation economic and community hub and directing the other $22 million to support the construction of a new facility for the Department of Corrections to replace Lincoln Hills School.

State Rep. David Steffen (R-Howard), who represents the area where the new visitor center is planned, said his office had been made aware of the press conference only a few hours before it happened.

Steffen, who wasn’t there, called the appearance by the governor “goofy” and “sophomoric.”

“After vetoing our year’s worth of work on this project, Evers sneaks into town for an impromptu press conference to take credit for a project he removed from the budget just six weeks ago,” Steffen said. “While I’m glad we are getting this matter addressed, this type of petty political antic is better kept in high school president races versus the office of the governor.”

State Rep. John Macco (R-Ledgeview) and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) joined Steffen to publicly criticize Evers supporting the funding for the visitor center as a “token gesture,” noting the governor had vetoed a number of provisions in the budget specifically earmarking funds for Northeast Wisconsin.

“From vetoing funding for local roads and infrastructure, to removing dollars for the aging Green Bay Correctional Institution and new assistant district attorney positions, the governor’s disingenuous crumbs for a visitor’s center are not fooling local Assembly Republicans,” said the statement from the three GOP lawmakers.

Hansen and Gruszynski fired back against those Republican lawmakers.

The two Democrats referred to the money included in the rewritten budget bill for non-state construction projects and vetoed by Evers as a “slush fund.”

“Rather than understanding they could all benefit from being seen by the public as working together with Governor Evers and Democrats to help our area, these Republicans chose to go along with their leaders in Madison to remove the visitor center and other projects in favor of creating their own special slush fund so they could deny Governor Evers any credit for his efforts,” Hansen said.

Steffen, who noted he hadn’t seen the funding measure backed by Hansen and Gruszynski prior to the press conference, said he has supported state funding for the visitor center in the past and expects he will do so in the future.

Hansen and Gruszynski emailed a memo Monday, Aug. 26, to all legislators seeking co-sponsors for the legislation they introduced to fund the visitor center.

They requested lawmakers respond to be co-sponsors by 5 p.m. Sept. 6.

CVB President Brad Toll, who was present for the press conference, said he hopes lawmakers from both parties will work together to provide the visitor center with the $2 million state grant.

Right now, Toll said the project has raised around $4 million.

Toll said he hopes the project will begin construction in October to be completed next year by late summer or early fall.

Once constructed, the two-story, 12,500 square-foot visitor center would be managed and programmed by the CVB, which will move its offices there.

It is now in temporary quarters after previously having operated out of the former Brown County Veterans Memorial Arena since the organization was founded in 1969.

The plans for the visitor center include featuring community spaces and an atrium with interactive displays that highlight attractions in the Green Bay area, the history and traditions of the community and its industries, along with the center having an outdoor plaza and garden.

Fundraising for the Experience Greater Green Bay Visitor Center is being facilitated by Experience Greater Green Bay, a 501(c)(3) partner of the CVB, to which contributions for the project will be tax deductible.

Toll noted the largest contribution for the project has been $1.5 million from the Oneida Nation.

Earlier this year, the Brown County Board voted 20-5 in favor of providing the CVB a $500,000 interest-free loan for building the visitor center.

The board’s resolution calls for the loan to be paid back in 10 years with no payments required in the first five years and $100,000 payments due in each year of the final five years.

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