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.
“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.
“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.
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.
“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.