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It’s back to the drawing board for the La Crosse Center expansion and renovation after the Common Council Thursday sustained Mayor Tim Kabat’s veto of the proposed concept and additional funding.

The council voted 7-6 to override the veto Kabat issued last month, failing to get the nine-vote supermajority required to reverse the mayor's rejection of a $49.2 million plan that extended a ballroom over Riverside Park.

The vote means the La Crosse Center Board, which will meet at 10 a.m. today discuss next steps, will work with architects from Gensler and ISG on a new option to expand the city-owned convention center, looking for a way to avoid encroaching on Riverside Park and sticking with the previously-approved $35 million in borrowing, along with $5 million in state-funds and $2 million in room taxes and other funds — a total of $42 million.

“I think we put the best alternative forward, but the council has voted. Now let’s move ahead,” La Crosse Center Board chair Brent Smith said. “I heard that sense of encouragement, that sense of optimism in the room that we can go forward and look at different alternatives and find a solution.”

The La Crosse Center Board's $49.2 million concept, labeled B1, included a 17,669-square-foot ballroom, a terrace off the ballroom and 10,000 square feet of additional meeting rooms. It called for a redesign of the main entrance off Second Street and a wrap-around hallway to connect the front and back of the building, as well as $8 million in deferred maintenance.

It also included a 27-foot-tall overhang that extended over about half an acre of Riverside Park's 20 acres, drawing criticism from those concerned about honoring the park’s history.

The council voted 7-4, with two members absent, last month to approve the concept and $7.2 million in additional funding. Kabat vetoed the council's decision.

The mayor said Thursday that it would be “devastating” to trade the park space for a La Crosse Center that predictions say will generate $1,000 per year in operating profits.

Mayor Tim Kabat


“Once you put a building on top of Riverside Park, that’s the end of that space for generations,” Kabat said.

Kabat urged council members to listen to the members of the public who wrote to them in opposition of the project.

“Our citizens have made this a very easy vote for you tonight,” Kabat said.

From the feedback the mayor received, he said, it’s clear La Crosse residents understand the need to remodel and expand the La Crosse Center but can’t condone eliminating green space and raising taxes to do it.

Proponents of the project, which has been in the works since 2014, say the concept was the best way for the city to get the most out of the expansion, balancing cost with economic impact, with some arguing that the renovations under the overhang would improve the park.

Council member Jacqueline Marcou said she uses that portion of the park often, but the connection to the park is vital for the La Crosse Center project.

Jacqueline Marcou


“If we don’t go into the park, I think a lot of people would be happy, but I think there is a way. I think there is a specialness of connecting with that park and the riverfront,” Marcou said.

Council president Martin Gaul spoke in favor of the concept, saying while he regretted taking any green space that it was necessary because the cost of building up was unsustainable.

“However, as I have also stated, it is paramount that we expand the center in such a way as to make it everything it needs to be to serve the market we are aiming at while attaining maximum economic viability,” Gaul said.

La Crosse Common Council member Martin Gaul


The expansion will bring in an additional 18,000 to 22,000 new visitors per year, creating an estimated 154 jobs according, to an economic impact study by ISG and Gensler.

The study shows an existing economic impact of $38 million and predicts that impact could increase by $12.1 million, bringing the total economic impact to $50 million per year, based on both day-attendees and people who stay overnight in the area to visit La Crosse Center for events. The city-owned convention center hosts more than 200 events per year.

Estimates from the city’s finance department say borrowing the additional $7.2 million could raise the debt service tax rate to up to $140 in 2037.

“As I have said many times during my time on the council, if we are going to build with the funds provided by the taxpayers of this city, we owe it to them to build it right the first time or not build it at all,” said Gaul. “Fiscal responsibility is not only about holding the line on taxes alone but also making investments as necessary to sustain this city for the short and the long run. Looking to the future is part of our job.”

However, council members including Phillip Ostrem, Scott Neumeister and Paul Medinger argued the concept included too many unknowns for them to vote in favor.

Brent Smith


“I have nothing against this project. I just want to know what it’s going to cost. We deserve to know what it’s going to cost,” Ostrem said.

After Thursday’s decision, Smith said it’s imperative that the city move forward with the public, business community, mayor and Common Council as soon as possible.

“We can do this, but we’ve got to put it on a fast track. It’s not something we can stand by and wait for,” Smith said.

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City government reporter

Jourdan Vian is a reporter and columnist covering local government and city issues for the La Crosse Tribune. You can contact her at 608-791-8218.

(19) comments


If they need to expand the Center and want to show off the nearby river why not extend the addition not only into riverside park but way out into the river also. I mean put a big part of the expansion right over the river, and maybe even all the way across into Pettibone! That way people can see both sides of the river from the comfort of being inside. And if its too far to walk put one of those moving walkways in like they have at big airports. Gosh it could be the eighth wonder of the world, just like foxconn, and be a lot cheaper than foxconn. They would have to put it on hydraulic stilts to raise it up so the barges and big boats could pass underneath. All you have to do is build it and they will come! I'm sure scooter could find some state money to help with the project!

Buggs Raplin

Again, considering the impact on property taxes, there is NO need for a massive expenditure of tax dollars to fund improvements to the La Crosse Center. La Crosse will always get convention business because of the downtown hotels and their proximity to the bars and restaurants. Conventioneers can walk to a bar or restaurant and have drinks and not have to worry about a drunk driving ticket. That, my friends, is the incentive for businesses to hold their conventions here. People, do not fall for the Tribune's urgent, 'we have to act now to spend $50 million dollars or the end is near' bullsh*t. The Tribune specializes in that sort of thing. It's been my experience this past 25 years, if the Tribune is for something, you should oppose it, especially when the Tribune urges haste in favor of contemplation regarding the issue at hand.

Buggs Raplin

FYI: the Mouse is an obvious Tribune employee whose nonsense is aimed to distract serious consideration from the issue at hand.

Buggs Raplin

The 7 council members opposing the mayor's veto are just puppets of the La Crosse establishment. Just puppets. Got that Padesky, Marcou, Janssen, Marshall, Olson, Christians, and Gaul. You are just puppets, ignoring the will of the people on this issue. Shame on you all. Shame, shame shame-the Deplorable 7. I hope the people of La Crosse will hold the Shameful 7 accountable. It's called accountability, the bedrock of democracy.-Chip DeNure


On Earth

Bravo! Veto upheld. Too many unknowns, especially regarding financing. Hope they heard it loud and clear: stay out of Riverside Park and come back with real numbers.

Buggs Raplin

Here's something for consideration. What if the economy collapses. Make that 'when' the economy collapses. Or do you believe the US can continue to spend a trillion dollars more than it takes in every year without an economic collapse at some point? What happens to convention business then? As I pointed out in a comment to the Tribune's editorial, with all the hotels downtown, and all the bars and restaurants downtown, and with severe consequences for driving drunk, I'm guessing La Crosse will continue to do good convention business without spending $50 million dollars. One thing's for sure, the Tribune's sense of urgency on this is wrong. Slow and steady with wisdom and common sense should be the watchwords.


Trump and the one-percenters are working at breakneck pace to collapse the economy.

Get real

for the record, it doesn't appear that anyone "caved". looks like 7 people voted for the proposal and two additional people voted against the plan. there were two people that didn't vote initially that voted last night. to me it looks like the process worked and all involved will have to deal with the aftermath and keep working to make it happen in a different way


I think we need a new park board as well as a new center board. Brent Smith in particular, has been on the center board forever.

Buggs Raplin

The good news: The veto was sustained. The bad news: A majority of the council ignored the widespread opposition of the people. They all need to be replaced.


Run for office, Chippy. It worked out so well for you the last time!

Buggs Raplin

I'm considering it.


Ha, they caved... Guess they weren't so confident in their decision after all.


Im so glad the park space will be kept as is!


Thank you, Mayor Kaba, and the council members who stood behind his veto!


If the reporting is correct, the supporters of a taking of parkland just gave it away. They need the scenic beauty of the river. They must have what we already have to be successful. They must take this from us because they lack creativity and imagination. They'll be back.

The Mouse of Death

[angry]It would behoove the Commode Council to look to a Cyprus bank for its next iteration of the brilliant Riverside Pork plan. We are indeed bemezzled by the Vladimir's unmatched ability to launder money through Cyprus banks so that Carter Page, Paul Manafort, General Flynn, Moochie, Kellyanne, Bannon, Lyin' Ted and Stormy Daniels.


At last six realistic council members. Too many options weren’t considered. The first thing that needs to be examined is why isn’t the room tax money not being saved for future expansion and certain capital maintenance items along with contributing funds to these items out of every rental and concession sale. Then an operating budget established that reflects true costs. Then the discussion can be started on what La Crosse needs, what the glory seekers want and what the tax payers can afford with consideration to other proposed tax increases from the city and county.


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