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La Crosse committee asks for regional solution to funding La Crosse Center expansion

A La Crosse committee declined to set a hard number for how many room tax dollars would go toward paying off the $42 million La Crosse Center renovation and expansion, but city leaders were firm that they wanted to see a regional solution.

The Finance and Personnel Committee decided to put off voting on a resolution that would have required $1.3 million of the estimated annual $2.55 million debt service payments to come from hotel room taxes, referring it for 30 days to give Mayor Tim Kabat, as well as Onalaska and La Crosse County, time to put together firm numbers.


The $1.3 million represents what the city would gather in room taxes if the rate was raised to 11% from the current 8%; however, members of the La Crosse County Convention and Visitors Bureau spoke out against raising the rate any higher than 9%.

Kabat’s preliminary proposal for a compromise, which he said was still a work in progress, would raise the room tax to 9.5% and take the remaining $80,000 from the LCCVB budget. The mayor has also asked La Crosse County to chip in $100,000 annually for 20 years and Onalaska to pay $50,000 each year for 10 years.

“Our goal, of course, is to balance what we’re asking our taxpayers here in the city to fund with what we are looking for in room tax dollars from our visitors and our tourists,” Kabat said.


Explore La Crosse executive director A.J. Frels was joined by LCCVB board members and hotel owners when he said they were willing to raise the rate to 9%, but thought higher rates would put too much pressure on the hotels and risk pricing La Crosse out of the market.

“Cutting our budget … will affect much, much more than just helping to pay off a debt service for the center,” said. “While we know that’s important, cutting our budget will cut our ability to market and sell the community.”

LCCVB brings in the WIAA state track meet, Bass Master tournaments and other events, as well as contributed $85,000 in grants for promotion of local events and festivals.

LCCVB Board President Laurie Pfaff said the group supports the La Crosse Center project, but cutting the funding and raising the room tax would be devastating to their mission.

“We do believe it would be every bit as catastrophic as it would be to raise the room tax above 9%,” Pfaff said. “By cutting the budget of the largest and currently the primary sales entity working to fill the La Crosse Center, our question would be, ‘How do you plan to attract or even retain the conventions?’”

Kabat challenged Explore La Crosse and La Crosse’s neighboring municipalities to find a creative funding solution.

“It wasn’t that long ago, less than a year ago, that our friends in the business community were advocating for a $49.2 million La Crosse Center — I think we all remember that,” Kabat said, adding that he vetoed that largely due to the high price tag.

“As we’re trying to come up with solutions for how to fund this, I’m hearing a lot of noes, as far as ideas and solutions,” Kabat said.

Kabat noted that Onalaska, Holmen, Campbell and West Salem have room taxes ranging from 3 to 8 percent.

“I would look the communities of La Crescent, Holmen, Campbell and West Salem. Maybe there are some changes that they all could do with their room tax that could help make up any difference that we would propose here as part of a compromise solution to help generate which I believe is going to be a $44 million annual impact to all these communities, including Onalaska, Holmen, Campbell and West Salem,” Kabat said.

When tracking users in the last five years, the city found that between 35 and 55 percent of users holding events like meetings, parties, proms and graduations each year are from La Crosse’s neighbors, he said.

“If we were in an ideal world, I think the La Crosse Center would honestly be a county-owned or a district-owned facility because of what it represents for the larger county and larger region,” Kabat said.

Council members including Doug Happel, Barb Janssen and Larry Sleznikow spoke up in agreement with the mayor.

“I’m a broken record, but we represent everyone in the city, and I have yet to receive a comment or a phone call from someone in the 12th District saying don’t raise the room tax,” Happel said, adding that the city should not raise property taxes to pay for the debt and leave La Crosse residents footing the vast majority of the bill.

Sleznikow added, “This is a regional facility. It’s not just La Crosse. I think if everyone is to benefit, I think everyone must contribute.”

He urged Explore La Crosse and others to go back to their communities to find other options.

The La Crosse County Board will discuss the potential of contributing to the center at its 6 p.m. Monday meeting.

La Crosse area students with special needs square off at Job Skills Olympics
Kyle Farris / Kyle Farris, La Crosse Tribune 

From right to left: Tyler Burkes, Jazlin Reese and Hunter Goslin — all of Holmen High School — staple, fold and seal letters as part of the Job Skills Olympics at Onalaska High School on Thursday.

The secret to being a speedy silverware sorter, according to West Salem high-schooler Damian Schmidt, is obvious.

“Just go fast,” he said. Really, really fast. Damian was one of roughly 100 students who participated Thursday in the Job Skills Olympics at Onalaska High School, a chance for young people with special needs to roll up their sleeves for some friendly competition.

Students from 10 area schools played a variety of games — from silverware sorting, to pencil sharpening, to can crushing — meant to mirror the responsibilities they’ll find at work or at home.

“It’s the most exciting day of the year for me, and I know the students look forward to it, too,” said Keri Jo Messick, an intellectual disabilities teacher at Onalaska High. “It’s just fun to get them all together in the same room. They’ve been shining and glowing all day.”

But before they could bus tables and fold laundry, the students needed a pep talk.

Josh Lichty, an assistant professor in Viterbo University’s School of Education, told the group to focus not on the disabilities they might have, but on the abilities they do have.

From there, Lichty said, all it takes to be successful is hard work and discipline. He used an example from his own life: being sure that he makes his bed every morning, even on days when he’s running late.

“I began my day the right way, and I’m encouraged because I’ve accomplished one thing,” he told the students. “If you make your bed, you’re doing something to start the day.”

When it was time for the games, the students marched one by one or in small groups onto the stage. Their classmates hooted and hollered.

On the word “go,” the competitors’ smiles would fade, replaced by blank expressions of razor-sharp focus. One student, whose routine was to sharpen a pencil, toss it blindly aside and then grab the next one, was lucky he didn’t take someone’s eye out.

Among the students, the consensus favorite game was can crushing, a sort of recycling relay race.

“I like it,” said Onalaska junior Garrett Osgood, “because you get to run.”

Liam Zellers, another Onalaska junior, said he enjoys the team element.

“It’s nice to see the time you can get,” he said.

Everyone should strive to master these life skills, according to teachers and disability service providers, but it’s especially important for people with special needs. Without these skills, it’s far tougher for them to live independently and land a well-paying job.

Messick said that, as part of the preparations for the Job Skills Olympics, the students called local businesses and asked them to donate prizes — everything from gift cards to electric toothbrushes.

Without knowing it, they’re practicing the soft skills that will help them ace an interview, interact with customers and colleagues, and form meaningful relationships.

“It’s a great way for them to learn how to act and socialize in a professional setting,” she said.

Final member of Roberta 'Mama Bear' Draheim's meth ring sentenced to three years in prison

MADISON — The final member of a La Crosse meth ring was sentenced Wednesday to three years in federal prison for facilitating the distribution of methamphetamine, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Tom Lewis, 29, of De Soto, pleaded guilty Feb. 19 to using a telephone to aid Roberta Draheim, the leader of the La Crosse meth ring, in distributing meth, according to the press release.


Draheim, 51, led a six-member conspiracy by arranging the delivery of 38 shipments of methamphetamine — some of them multi-pound — from California to La Crosse between October 2016 and February 2018.

All six individuals pleaded guilty and Lewis is the last to be sentenced, said a spokesperson from the Department of Justice.

Lewis agreed to purchase two ounces of meth from Draheim’s new source in California after her previous source disappeared, authorities said.

While Lewis waited for the package of meth to arrive in the mail, he used a telephone to arrange the distribution of meth to Draheim, authorities said.

Lewis then joined Draheim five days after being released from state custody on a separate matter, according to the press release.

U.S. District Judge William M. Conley said Lewis continued “to engage in the sale of multiple substances, including methamphetamine, while on state supervision.”

The Drug Enforcement Administration in Wisconsin and California, Wisconsin Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, La Crosse Police Department, Prairie du Chien Police Department and Dane County Sheriff’s Office conducted the investigation.

La Crosse County Circuit Court felony cases in May
La Crosse County Circuit Court felony cases in May

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

Onalaska’s Alyssa Achenreiner takes a swing during Thursday's 2-1 victory over Aquinas. The Hilltoppers are unbeaten in the MVC.



La Crosse Omnium draws hundreds of cyclists to the hills
Jourdan Vian / Jourdan Vian, La Crosse Tribune 

Chicago Elite Women's Cycling practices Thursday for the La Crosse Omnium, which begins Friday with time trials up Bliss Road.

For Sam Scipio of Chicago, the best part about riding her bike in La Crosse is the hills.


“It’s conquerable, right? You start at the bottom and work your way up, and once you get to the top, you know you’ve done it. There’s a clear beginning and end to a hill, and it’s really rewarding to be at the top of it,” Scipio said.

Scipio is one of 15 cyclists with the Chicago Women’s Elite Cycling in town this week for the La Crosse Omnium bicycle series, which starts Friday with a time trial up Bliss Road. The group of women, which includes now-retired professional cyclists Alison Powers and Lauren Hall, have been training since Tuesday to get ready for the race.


“It’s rained on us the past couple days and everybody’s still all smiles, so we must be doing something good,” Daphne Karagianis said.

Karagianis, who won the women’s series last year, spent the week coaching along with Powers and Hall.

“During this development series, we arrived in La Crosse three days early, and we’re doing three days of learning leading up to the three-day Omnium race, and each of our days is structured around one of the days of the race,” Karagianis said.

The Omnium, which is put on by the Outdoor Recreation Alliance, includes a Grandad Bluff time trial up Bliss Road where cyclists climb 550 feet in 2.4 miles, a road race that follows a 14.3-mile circuit between one and four times and a Criterium through downtown La Crosse that begins and ends in Riverside Park.

Chris Stindt, who organizes the race along with Robbie Young, expects record attendance this year, with the number of cyclists in town climbing upward toward 500.

“People know about us at this point. We’re pretty well-established,” Stindt said.

What makes a popular event are cash payouts and great courses, he said, and the Omnium has both.

“You won’t see anything else like it in the Midwest,” Stindt said.

The road race course is beautiful, according to Karagianis and Scipio, who trained there Wednesday. It has a large bluff climb, rolling hills and a fast dissent.

“We all come from Chicago and there’s like no hills, no elevation there. The variance of being able to be out in the countryside and be in the hills and ride over the Mississippi River, but then also be in the urban downtown area, is just really cool,” Scipio said.

They got to see some horses and cows, plus do some climbing away from cars.

“The thing is when you go up a hill, then you get to go down, and that’s really, really fun,” Scipio said.

The uphill time trial offers a unique experience that can’t be found anywhere else in the area, Karagianis said.

“It’s really cool to have that challenge with an uphill TT because people can gain experience with that for when they race nationally,” Karagianis said.

It’s not an easy climb on a bike.

“Your lungs literally are burning. There’s nothing like it,” Stindt said.

For riders like Scipio, it’s also a challenge, and one that comes with a reward in the form of a beautiful view from the top of the bluff.

“It’s definitely going to be worth it,” Scipio said.

The team, which is a nonprofit group dedicated to developing women cycling, is treating the La Crosse Omnium as a learning opportunity, as well as an opportunity to encourage women and girls to embrace the sport.

“It creates future leaders and it’s a really good outlet for anyone really, but we’re also fighting for equality within the sport, so whether that be equal payouts for race money or equal distances for the race, all of that kind of thing,” Karagianis said.

They like the Omnium because it has equal payouts for men and women, plus the cycling community goes out of its way to welcome new cyclists, she said.

“You feel like people want you to be here and are embracing you being here,” Karagianis said.

They definitely love to have as many people as possible, said Stindt, who also invited people to come watch the Criterium.

“From my perspective this is really a story about a community coming together and showcasing one of the best regions in the country for cycling. Cycling is one of the things that has attracted so many of us to our city,” Stindt said.

It brings in multiple millions of dollars in tourism money, and with the beauty and recreation opportunities, it really puts La Crosse on the map.

“It really exposes La Crosse to a wide variety of people who might not otherwise come here,” Stindt said.

It gives local businesses an immediate boost, as well as long-term exposure he said.