Finally, construction has begun on a crucial project for downtown La Crosse and the Coulee Region — the $42 million expansion of the La Crosse Center.
It took years of public meetings and private debates, vetoes and revisions, and several attempts at regional collaboration — some successful, some not.
As you can tell from letters to the editor, there are people who think the money would be better spent fixing streets (more on that in a moment).
But the La Crosse Center expansion is a vital investment — for our region’s economy and quality of life.
The center contributes $38 million to our area’s economy each year — and the expansion is expected to add $6 million in economic benefit annually.
That’s why the recent groundbreaking event was more than ceremonial.
This is a building that is nearly 40 years old — and looks every bit of it, despite the good work of the La Crosse Center staff.
Twenty years ago, the center was expanded to add exhibition space. And the effort yielded more business for the center and the community.
In recent years, we’ve added about 500 hotel rooms and a number of new restaurants and shops downtown. All of those businesses benefit with a vibrant downtown La Crosse.
And a vibrant La Crosse Center is a linchpin to a vibrant urban center.
The center hosts 225 events and 26 conferences annually.
Some of those events are at risk because the center has needed more room.
This new expansion will include:
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- A new ballroom that is 12,202 square feet.
- An exhibition hall that is 15,000 square feet.
- A rooftop terrace with a view of the Mississippi River.
- A much more attractive atrium and a variety of visitor amenities to bring the center into this century.
The work is slated for completion in 2021.
Joel Brennan, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Administration, was among the dignitaries attending the event.
Brennan, a longtime Wisconsin tourism official who met with the Tribune editorial board afterward, said he was impressed to see center board Chairman Brent Smith and center director Art Fahey welcoming community and state leaders to the groundbreaking.
“It reflects what the project is like when you come down the escalator here, and the people who are here to welcome you are the people who are responsible for doing the work here. You have the director of the center and you have the chairman of the board handing out programs, welcoming people,” Brennan said. “It gives you a sense of the community here and a sense of the community’s involvement in this project over the past several years.”
The state is contributing $4.5 million or so in tourism funds to the project.
“This is the culmination of a lot of work that’s happened over the last several years, but it’s also the start of something that’s going to be really exciting for this part of the state, and it’s exciting for the state overall,” Brennan said. “The work that you’re doing here is going to have a dramatic impact on tourism in this part of the state, it’s going to have an economic impact on your hotel partners and your partners in the convention business.”
As he wrapped up the ceremony, Mayor Tim Kabat handed out a lot of thanks — and the first went to the taxpayers of La Crosse, who are paying $35 million.
It’s a lot of money — and residents will see that reflected on their property taxes.
We understand the sensitivity — especially among those who are tired of dodging potholes.
One reminder: A number of the heavily traveled streets — Third and Fourth streets, La Crosse Street, South Avenue and Lang Drive — are state highways, not local streets.
As Wisconsin continues to slip to near the bottom of nationwide road-maintenance rankings, keep in mind that city leaders — who are spending more in recent years on street repairs — can’t control legislative funding.
What we can control is investing in what matters in our community.
In Wisconsin, we understand what a bell cow is.
For economic development in downtown La Crosse, a growing La Crosse Center is the bell cow that helps make the cash registers ring.