In 2014, the Tomah Chamber and Visitors Center began looking for a building in Tomah that we could renovate for our permanent location. We toured several locations before we were approached by the city administrator and mayor of Tomah, who at the time was Shannon Hough. They wanted us to consider the Department of Natural Resources ranger station located at 310 N. Superior Ave. The DNR announced it would be vacating the building, and when it did, the building would go to the city at no cost.
Since the time that the Chamber and Visitors Center vacated the former funeral home on Superior Avenue (where the police station now stands), the plans have always been to find a location that would be for our permanent offices. In 2013, the city of Tomah began collecting a two percent room tax that was earmarked for building a permanent office for the Chamber and Visitors Center. This room tax is generated from people who pay to stay in our hotels. It is not a tax to local residents. At the time that we were approached by the city of Tomah, the terms of the lease agreement proposed to us by the city were that we would pay $1 per year for 50 years to lease this building from the city of Tomah. This agreement was taken in front of city council, where it faced no objections.
Over the course of the last two years, a large focus of my work was in the renovating of this building. I worked with an architect to create the floor plans and every other detail of the renovation. I participated in every moment and every aspect of the planning. I provided regular updates and tours to board members and the city council. I worked to bring the cost of this project down from the original plans of building a $1.5-2 million facility to renovate this project at a cost of $830,754.99. I did this not only knowing it would be our future home, but also to give a beautiful gift, for which they could be proud, to the city of Tomah that cost them nothing.
After countless hours of working on this building, we moved in to it in June of 2017 with full expectation that the original lease terms proposed to us and discussed with city council at several meetings would be honored by the city council.
We are now in 2018 and find ourselves without a signed lease. It appears that there are a few members of our city council that would like to charge us rent for the building. At the January city council meeting, John Rusch approached the council and suggested selling us the building for $250,000 and taxing us $4,000 a month. In speaking with the city assessor’s office, it indicated that it would be very challenging to find comparable properties to establish a value and tax amount for this building. It is unclear where the figures of Mr. Rusch were derived from.
I believe that there are some clarifications that everyone needs to understand.
1. The city of Tomah (and its taxpayers) do not have a single dollar invested in this building. They received it for nothing from the DNR. Zero city tax dollars were used to fund this building.
2. When the Chamber and Visitors Center were first approached, we verified with the Wisconsin Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus that the two percent room tax that was being collected was an appropriate use of funds for this building renovation project.
3. The two percent room tax collected to fund the majority of this building renovation is 100 percent generated from overnight room stays.
4. The $200,000 that the CVB voted to contribute to this building is 100 percent generated by overnight room stays (visitors who stay in our hotels).
5. If the city sells the building to the CVB, it will be making a profit off our non-profit organization over something they received for free.
6. If the city sells the building to another entity, it has to account for the spending of room tax dollars that did not go to “tourism development and tourism promotion” as required by state statute.
7. The city of Tomah approached the Chamber/CVB with the opportunity to renovate this building and rent it back for $1 a year for 50 years.
8. The city attorney drafted a lease agreement outlining those terms at the direction of the city council.
9. The city council approved our CVB budget. Rent in that budget is listed at $1.
10. Room tax dollars must go for “tourism promotion and tourism development.” If the city sells us this building and then taxes us the suggested $4,000 a month, they are, in essence, using those tourism dollars to support the general fund, which is a misappropriation of funds. Those funds should legally be used toward “tourism promotion and tourism development” projects that the Tomah Chamber and Visitors Center have planned.
11. Our entire purpose as a Chamber and a CVB is to support and promote Tomah for both the residents and businesses of our community as well as those who visit our town. This costs the city of Tomah nothing other than their membership in our organization. We are funded through our members and visitor hotel stays. We receive no local tax dollars.
12. When I contacted the city assessor’s office, it indicated it would be very difficult to assess this building because there are no comparable properties. It is unclear where Mr. Rusch’s suggested sale price of $250,000 and monthly tax of $4,000 originated from or is based upon.
13. If the city charges us rent, the room tax dollars spent to fund this project should be taken into consideration and applied to our years of rent. For example, if we are charged rent of $4,000 per month, rent would be prepaid for 17.29 years. This does not include a consideration of my time and involvement in the project.
14. We have hosted around 1,500 people through this building since we took residence. Our intention from Day 1 was to make this building the “Crown Jewel” of Tomah. I believe we have done that and we want to continue to share Tomah’s history through this building.
While we are eager to get an agreement in place, we also would like to put this behind us in a professional manner and restore a good working relationship with the city council. The Chamber/CVB works very well with each department within the city and the city administrator. We value a healthy relationship with the city council and will be striving to reach that destination.
Tomah’s city council meets on the second Tuesday of each month, usually at 6:30 p.m. in the council chambers located at 819 Superior Ave. We are hoping for the support of our community in reaching an agreement with the city council. We are hoping the city council will go back and honor the original agreement they proposed to the Chamber and Visitors Center. We hope for your support by either a letter stating your support, or your attendance in support of our efforts when this is back on the agenda.
In support of Tomah, our growth, our development and our future, thank you for allowing us to do our work to support and promote our community.