Visitor center runs into state funding snag
By Kevin Boneske
ASHWAUBENON – In the final months before state lawmakers adjourn for this legislative session, the prospects aren’t looking good for providing a $2 million grant to build a new visitor center in the Green Bay area.
After the money wasn’t included in the biennial budget Gov. Tony Evers approved last summer, the effort to provide the funding in a separate bill has stalled due to partisan politics.
The pending legislation, Assembly Bill 493/Senate Bill 445, was introduced in late summer by State Rep. Staush Gruszynski (D-Green Bay) and Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay).
It would provide the Experience Greater Green Bay Visitor Center project the final $2 million for the estimated $7 million cost.
The measure was referred to the Assembly Committee on Tourism and the Senate Committee on Economic Development, but no public hearing on the bill has been scheduled in either house of the Legislature where Republicans hold majorities.
When the separate piece of legislation was introduced at a press conference Aug. 26 at Hinterland Brewery in Ashwaubenon’s Titletown District, the Democratic governor was joined by Gruszynski and Hansen, but no Republicans – including the two lawmakers who represent the area where the visitor center is planned – were on hand.
Partisan bickering followed the press conference 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 Convention and Visitors Bureau 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 could have been one of the items to receive funding in a competitive process for that 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 the Lincoln Hills School.
State Rep. David Steffen (R-Howard), who represents the area where the new visitor center is planned, has supported the project, which was first announced in September 2018 by the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
But he doesn’t see the prospects looking good for receiving state funding.
He said the opportunity for passage is low, given the difficulty to pass a funding bill in the final months of the legislative session.
Steffen, who has been critical of Gruszynski and Hansen for how the bill was introduced, said the two Democrats didn’t contact him regarding the legislation.
When Gruszynski was asked about the GOP criticism as to how the bill has been handled to gain support for its passage, he said Republicans should draft their own legislation to fund a new visitor center.
“I don’t care whose bill it is,” Gruszynski said.
He is a member of the Committee on Tourism where the bill has been referred.
In the other legislative chamber, State Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay), who also represents Ashwaubenon, said it is highly unlikely legislation to fund the visitor center will move forward, given the limited amount of money spent by lawmakers in the remaining months of the session after the budget is approved.
Cowles said state funding for the project may have to wait until the next biennial budget is approved in 2021.
Despite the lack of legislation action, CVB President Brad Toll said he is still hopeful lawmakers from both parties will work together to provide the visitor center with the $2 million state grant, though other possible funding sources are being pursued, such as a large corporate donor.
With about $4 million being raised so far for the project, Toll said he hopes 80 percent of the slightly less than $7 million needed to build a new visitor center can be raised so ground could be broken this spring to start construction.
Because the project didn’t begin construction this fall to be completed next year by late summer or early fall in time for when the Wisconsin Badgers football team would play Notre Dame at Lambeau Field and next year’s Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Toll said the CVB will instead have some type of a pop-up center in place during those events.
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 to 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.