By Kevin Boneske
ASHWAUBENON – Providing a state loan to help finance the construction of the Experience Greater Green Bay Visitor Center moved forward Thursday, Feb. 20, when the Assembly approved a bill to authorize a $2 million, interest-free loan for the project.
The legislation, known as Senate Bill 721/Assembly Bill 787, would require the Wisconsin Department of Administration (DOA) to award the loan to the Greater Green Bay Convention and Visitor Bureau (CVB) to build the center, which is planned in Ashwaubenon near Interstate 41 and Lombardi Avenue.
The measure has received bipartisan support from local lawmakers in both houses of the Legislature.
“This bill will continue to promote a growing local and regional tourism community and support the 5.7 million visitors annually to Brown County,” said State Rep. Staush Gruszynski (D-Green Bay). “I have been proud to support this project from the beginning and I look forward to seeing it passed in the Senate and placed on the governor’s desk soon.”
Originally, $2 million in state grant money had been proposed for constructing the visitor center, estimated to cost around $6.5-$7 million.
After the grant wasn’t included in the biennial budget Gov. Tony Evers approved last summer, an effort to provide funding in a separate bill stalled because of partisan politics.
The prospects looked unlikely for grant funding to pass in the current legislative session before lawmakers adjourn this spring.
If the state loan is approved, the CVB would have 20 years to pay it back, with the DOA determining the terms and conditions for repayment.
Passage in the Senate could come when it’s scheduled to hold its final floor session of the year March 24-26, said Evan Hafenbreadl, communications director for Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere).
Jacque, who is also a sponsor of the bill, said the legislation would provide “much needed gap financing” to ensure construction of the visitor center.
“A broad coalition of local leaders have committed to investing and supporting the rest of this over $6.5 million project,” he said.
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.
The CVB has said around $4 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.
CVB Visitor Center Director Cameron Teske said approval of the state loan would make it possible to break ground for the project in April.
The CVB also hopes to finish building the visitor center within a year.
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 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.