By Kevin Boneske
ASHWAUBENON – State lawmakers held public hearings last week before both a Senate and Assembly committee to consider a bill the Greater Green Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) hopes will make it possible to proceed with constructing a new visitor center.
“The hearings went well,” said CVB President/CEO Brad Toll.
Toll testified, along with CVB Visitor Center Director Cameron Teske, before the Senate Committee on Local Government, Small Business, Tourism and Workforce Development and the Assembly Committee on Tourism.
“Through effective destination sales and marketing, and the media attention afforded our state’s NFL franchise, visitorship now is approaching 6 million visitors annually in Brown County,” Toll told lawmakers. “There’s one very important piece that’s missing. Green Bay has never had a place to engage with visitors when they’re actually in the market – a visitor education center. Our goals for the building are very simple – encourage visitors to stay longer, spend more and come back soon. The longer we can keep them in our community and in the State of Wisconsin, the larger the impact they have on our state’s economy.”
Senate Bill 721/Assembly Bill 787 call for the Wisconsin Department of Administration (DOA) to award a $2 million, interest-free state loan to the CVB to build the center, which is planned in Ashwaubenon near Interstate 41 and Lombardi Avenue off of Argonne Street.
The CVB would have 20 years to pay back the state loan.
The DOA would determine the terms and conditions for repayment.
The measure has received bipartisan support from local lawmakers in both houses of the Legislature.
Originally, $2 million in state grant money had been proposed toward constructing the visitor center, estimated to cost around $6.5 to $7 million.
After the grant money wasn’t included in the biennial budget Gov. Tony Evers approved last summer, an effort to provide grant funding in a separate bill stalled due to partisan politics.
The prospects looked unlikely for grant funding to pass in the final months of the current Legislative session before lawmakers adjourn.
Then legislation calling for a $2 million loan instead of a grant ended the partisan stalemate in an effort to provide the CVB with the funds it needs to proceed with the visitor center project.
Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere) said the state loan would “provide the much needed gap financing to ensure construction of the Experience Greater Green Bay Visitor Center.”
“A broad coalition of local leaders have committed to investing and supporting the rest of this over $6.5 million project,” Jacque said.
Rep. Staush Gruszynski (D-Green Bay), who characterized state funding for the visitor center as having been “a bit of a political football during budget time and afterwards,” said lawmakers “shouldn’t get lost in the details of the past.”
“I think we should definitely look at the opportunity we have here to move forward with this visitor information and education center and the fact that we have a bipartisan solution to move this forward,” he said. “I think that’s really important.”
Rep. Dave Steffen (R-Howard), another cosponsor of the bill, said he agrees a loan has a better chance of passing than a grant in the remaining weeks of the Legislative session.
“I think we’re in a much better spot,” he said.
However, Steffen said passage in the Assembly would have to come soon with that legislative body’s leadership planning to adjourn the session by the end of February.
If the loan is approved, Toll said the CVB hopes to break ground in April and be able to finish the center in less than a year later.
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.
The CVB is now in temporary quarters across from the Resch Center 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 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 are tax deductible.
Toll said around $3.8 million has been raised so far with the largest contribution for the project being $1.5 million from the Oneida Nation.
Last year, the Brown County Board of Supervisors 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.
Toll said he expects the CVB would have to pay back $100,000 annually over 20 years should the $2 million, interest-free state loan be approved.