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Committee strikes compromise on $42 million La Crosse Center expansion

It took hours of debate and some last-minute sums, but a La Crosse committee, with help from Mayor Tim Kabat and council president Martin Gaul, came up with a compromise for the La Crosse Center renovation and expansion that keeps it within the $42 million budget, restores the full North Hall and puts a little toward going green.



The Finance and Personnel Committee unanimously approved the schematic design of the city-owned convention center that includes all the special features recommended by the La Crosse Center Board, adds 3,000 square feet to the rebuilt exhibition hall to make it 15,000 square feet total and includes solar panels on the roof.

“What we want to do here this evening is to proceed. Everybody is in agreement no matter what side you’re on here is that we need to proceed in a timely fashion,” Gaul said.

After spending years working on a design, the La Crosse Center Board and city council members are hearing from area business leaders, who are urging them to bring some certainty to the convention center’s future.

Dave Ring, a member of the La Crosse County Convention and Visitors Bureau Board, told the committee that the delay was costing area businesses money, saying hotel room sales were down 10 percent in 2019 already.

“We need to remove that uncertainty, because uncertainty creates doubt, results in reduced sales, ultimately in reduced room-tax revenue and it creates a huge opportunity loss for the city, the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the businesses that rely on the Convention and Visitors Bureau,” Ring said. Kabat agreed that the project needed to move forward — so long as it kept to the fiscal constraints set last year.

“We’ve come too far with this process, and I don’t want to be in a position where the $42 million is exceeded, because I think you probably have an idea of where I would come down on that,” Kabat said. “I think this is the best route forward.”

The compromise was made thanks to the approval of a contract with Johnson Controls to upgrade heating and cooling systems and lighting in four city-owned buildings, including the La Crosse Center, as part of a citywide effort to operate more efficiently and save on energy costs. Those upgrades to the La Crosse Center were originally included in the $42 million project.

Kabat agreed to use the savings from the energy upgrade to pay for the $1 million upgrades, freeing up that amount in the project budget.

“My requirement to be able to utilize that is a portion of that savings, if you will, or availability, has to be used for bringing clean, renewable energy in the form of solar rooftop photovoltaic arrays,” Kabat said.

Preliminary estimates show the solar panels would be about $400,000 to $500,000.

Virtual tour shows what view from La Crosse Center could look like

The proposal, which goes to the full La Crosse Common Council at 6 p.m. April 11, also removes $300,000 from the $5 million contingency fund for the project.

The compromise came after a lengthy discussion that largely focused on the future of North Hall.

Chris Navratil, vice president of Shamrock Productions, urged the city to rebuild the exhibition hall to the full 15,000-square-foot size it is now, rather than take it down just over 11,000-square feet. Shamrock Productions has put on the La Crosse Sports Show in the convention center for more than 40 years and hopes to continue to use the North Hall. The show is bursting at the seams already and wants room to grow, not to be forced to shrink, Navratil said.

Council members were sympathetic to her cause, but some, like Doug Happel, were unwilling to raise the budget to accommodate the larger exhibition hall.

“My bottom line has been for months $42 million, not $42 million and one,” Happel said.

The schematic design approved by the committee includes a 12,000-square-foot ballroom, 9,000 square feet of meeting rooms, an atrium, a skywalk connecting the two sides of the building on the western side and a rooftop garden terrace over North Hall, as well as a full North Hall and the solar power array. It also includes about $6 million in maintenance, including replacements for the seats in the arena.

Bonding over basketball: State champion Blugolds visit 100-year-old woman who wrote congratulatory letter
Kyle Farris / Kyle Farris, La Crosse Tribune 

Dolores Zabolio, center, touches the Aquinas girls basketball team's state championship trophy Thursday morning at Hillview Health Care Center. The players visited Dolores, who played basketball at Aquinas in the 1930s, after she wrote them a congratulatory letter.

Perhaps the oldest fan of the Aquinas girls basketball team got a special visit Thursday — one that called for painted nails, coiffed hair and an old, yellowed yearbook.

Blugold players and coaches stopped by Hillview Health Care Center to see the 100-year-old Dolores Zabolio, less than a month after the Blugolds secured their second consecutive state title, and less than two weeks before Dolores’ 101st birthday.

“Thank you, thank you,” Dolores said as she met with the team, which brought her an armful of Aquinas gear, including a T-shirt, blanket and water bottle.

She even got to touch the state championship trophy, pressing her hand against a golden basketball the size of her head.

“I can’t believe it,” she said. “This is a real big honor.”

It all started a few weeks ago, when Dolores and her daughter, Mary McGrath, saw a story about the Blugolds in the Tribune.

Dolores Zabolio's letter to the Aquinas girls basketball team.

With her daughter’s help, Dolores wrote a letter congratulating the girls on their championship and mentioning that, more than 80 years earlier, she had played for Aquinas’ intramural girls basketball team.

“I know what you girls are going through,” the letter read. “We had my dad take a car full of us to Marshfield. We played basketball with the team that day. It was quite an event.”

A yearbook from the mid-1930s built upon her story. In one black-and-white photo, a fresh-faced Dolores and a few of her teammates are down on one knee, a basketball at their feet, their coach giving them instructions.

Dolores’ yearbook and memory could be the last bridge between present day and this particular piece of Aquinas sports history.

Team officials said they were surprised to learn that girls at the school were playing organized basketball in the 1930s, 40 years before Title IX and the rise of girls sports.

For one reason or another, Aquinas girls basketball appears to have lost steam by the 1940s and ’50s, finding new life after the passage of Title IX in 1972.

“To have an outpouring of support … from an Aquinas basketball player in the 1930s is pretty amazing stuff,” head coach Dave Donarski said. “This is a great opportunity to bring two generations together.”

Kyle Farris / Kyle Farris, La Crosse Tribune 

Dolores Zabolio receives a box of cupcakes from the state champion Aquinas girls basketball team Thursday morning at Hillview Health Care Center. The players visited Dolores, who played basketball at Aquinas in the 1930s, after she wrote them a congratulatory letter.

Added senior guard Megan Scheidt: “It’s cool to be able to meet with one of the first (girls basketball players) at Aquinas. It shows that we have support that we don’t even notice.”

The girls seemed to informally adopt Dolores as a grandmother during their visit.

They let out a collective “aww” when they talked about the letter, which — even though Dolores struggles to write — she insisted on signing herself.

After learning that Dolores had done her hair, one of the girls looked down at a strand of her own, flipping it back.

“I wish I had done my hair,” she said.

The team also sang “Happy Birthday” to Dolores, handing her a box of blue and gold cupcakes, each one decorated with a basketball ring.

“Today is a blessing,” Mary, her daughter, said. “It’s an absolute blessing.”

Dolores has lived much of her life in the La Crosse area.

Dolores Zabolio's senior yearbook photo, from 1936. The entry states that she was a member of the "G.A.A." basketball team at Aquinas.

After attending Aquinas, she pumped gas and sorted mail at the Genoa IGA, which her family ran.

She raised a family and lost her husband to a heart attack when he was 44. Ever since, Mary said, Dolores has been on her own.

She moved to the nursing home at Hillview several years ago, but she has remained sharp, friends and family say.

Exercise is still an important part of her life. She usually joins in when Hillview residents get together to kick a beach ball around or to perform stretches in their wheelchairs.

More than anything, staff say, Dolores loves visitors.

“She’s a very kind-hearted person and just loves being around people,” said Kim Haskey, support systems manager at Hillview. “She couldn’t believe they left school to go see her.”

Wrapped in her new Aquinas blanket, Dolores shook the line of young hands, thanking the girls for coming. The group took a few final pictures.

The Blugolds have designs on a third consecutive state title — one that Dolores hopes she will be around to see.

Maybe that’s why, as the girls streamed out the door, Dolores did not give them a traditional goodbye.

“Well, come again,” she said.


Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

Holmen’s Ben Byom fires a pitch during Thursday’s game against Onalaska.

GOP lawmakers knock Tony Evers' plan to boost minimum wage; Democrats call it overdue

Republican lawmakers on Thursday panned Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ plan to increase Wisconsin’s minimum wage and said his budget plan fails to match his campaign pledges to overhaul the state criminal-justice system.

Evers’ pick for Corrections Secretary, Kevin Carr, testified he wants to “change the culture” in the state’s correctional system and said he’s comfortable with Evers’ proposal to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The comments came during the second day of briefings by Evers administration officials on his budget plan before the Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee.

In past years lawmakers have built the state budget based on what the governor proposes. This year, with partisan control of state government split, GOP lawmakers say they’re likely to build their own budget. It remains unclear how that could lead to a compromise on a budget the governor and Legislature can both support.

Evers’ budget proposes to increase the state’s minimum wage — which now matches the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour — to $10.50 by 2023. It ties future increases to inflation and creates a task force to look at eventually increasing the wage to $15.

Democratic lawmakers said Evers’ minimum-wage plan gives a much-needed earnings boost to low-income Wisconsinites.

But GOP lawmakers were skeptical. Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, said his career started when he did farm work for $5 a day. He said he’s concerned by the prospect of “unintended consequences” from increasing the minimum wage, such as employers automating low-wage jobs.

Rep. Shannon Zimmerman, R-River Falls, said he used to be a minimum wage earner and, at that time, was intent on “improving.”

“If we just raise it (minimum wage), what incentive would I possibly have had to improve?” Zimmerman said.

Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said it’s strange to hear lawmakers argue that paying people a living wage could hurt them.

“Only a very privileged person could make such an argument,” Taylor said.

Evers’ proposal would increase unemployment benefits and remove barriers to qualify for them. Some Republicans on the committee, including Sen. Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, questioned if the changes could make unemployment benefits too easy — or too enticing — to obtain.

Evers’ budget also includes some provisions to repeal measures enacted by Republicans under former Gov. Scott Walker. It would restore the state prevailing wage requirement for public works projects and repeal the so-called “right-to-work” law that bars unions from requiring workers, as a condition of employment, to pay fees that cover a share of the costs of union representation.

Other Republicans on the committee said Evers’ budget fails to address the state’s worker shortage.

GOP lawmakers said Evers’ budget fails to match his campaign calls to reduce the state’s prison population by half, end the use of solitary confinement in state prisons and end mandatory minimum sentences.

Carr — a former U.S. Marshal and veteran of the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office — said he wants to “change the culture” in the state’s correctional system by reducing the use of restrictive housing and treating everyone with “dignity, respect and compassion.”

Carr also said he supports Evers’ plan to delay the planned 2021 closure of the state’s troubled youth prisons north of Wausau. A 2018 law requires the eventual closure of the facility and calls for replacing it with smaller regional facilities for juvenile offenders.

Evers has said he wants to wait until the new facilities are built to close Lincoln Hills.

“The governor and I want to close Lincoln Hills as soon as there is an appropriate facility that can accept our youth,” Carr said.

Carr added that following the recent adoption of new procedures and reducing the use of restrictive housing at the youth prison, assaults on staff there have declined by half.