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Better City Superior partners with Eau Claire

Rendering of potential building projects that the Better City Superior Exposition District could fund, including a theater, a convention center and an indoor recreation center, as shown in this artist’s rendering.

Legislators serving Superior and Eau Claire are partnering to introduce legislation that could give the cities a new tool for economic development. The move is plan B for creating a Superior exposition district after it wasn't included in the state budget last year.

"This is our next best chance to be heard," said Bruce Thompson, president of the Better City Superior board of directors.

The legislation would allow both Superior and Eau Claire to impose a food and beverage tax of half a percent and a room tax of up to 2 percent. Money raised would be used to leverage private investment in large-scale economic development such as a sports complex, convention center, indoor waterpark or movie theater.

Currently, Wisconsin law only allows the use of an exposition district in Milwaukee.

Sen. Terry Moulton, R-Chippewa Falls, is taking the lead on Senate Bill 727, supported by Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Delta. The companion Assembly bill is being introduced by Rep. Warren Petryk, R-Eleva, Rep. Nick Milroy, D-South Range and Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire.

Teaming up with Eau Claire is a positive step, said Better City Superior board member Al Kurtz.

"I think the more bingo cards you have, the more chances you have to get bingo."said Kurtz, who owns five Erbert & Gerbert's restaurants, including the one in Superior.

Having a sports complex or theater opening a few blocks away equates to more people exploring downtown Superior, Kurtz said. The tax would target food and beverage sales, but he supports it. If it passed, taxes on an Erbert & Gerbert's sandwich would rise to 6 percent in Superior. The tax on that same sandwich at Kurtz' downtown Duluth restaurant is currently 10.625 percent.

"The city of Duluth uses that tool to pay for things," he said, and build on what it already has.

Duluth collected a record $11.34 million in tourism tax collections from hotels and restaurants in 2016, according to the Duluth City Treasurer's Office.

Superior has huge potential, Thompson said, with a 4,400-acre municipal forest and Lake Superior on its border. Investing in the economy through an exposition district could draw people to Superior, compliment the offerings Duluth already has and pull in some of those tourist dollars.

"It all starts somewhere," Thompson said. "We're trying to start."

The push to improve Superior's economy began in 2013, with a business-driven effort to look at its options — the exposition district would be one of them. The move involves raising taxes, but it's a consumption-based tax, not a fixed one. Only those who eat out or stay at hotels would pay.

"It doesn't impact people who can afford it the least," Thompson said.

And, he said, "We are authorizing it ourselves."

Bewley said passing the bill doesn't automatically put the tax in place, it just gives residents the ability to do so.

"That's the ultimate in local control," she said.

More than 75 percent of Superior voters approved the city referendum to create an exposition district in November 2016. Members of the Joint Committee on Finance received more than 400 letters, emails and calls supporting the exposition district; the effort earned resolutions of support from more than 20 organizations; lobbying efforts including Superior Days focused on the issue.

Thompson, community bank president for National Bank of Commerce, said he was stunned when the exposition district wasn't included in the budget, but it's just a speed bump on the city's path.

Between 1960 and 2010, Superior has lost about 6,000 people, nearly 16 percent of its population.

"If we do nothing, we will continue to lose people," Thompson said.

There's a short window of time to get these bills through. The Assembly is scheduled to meet for two weeks in February, then end its session.

"I'm telling people it's kind of a hail Mary pass because it's so close to the end of the session," Milroy said.

There are enough ticks of the clock to do it, Bewley said, if there's enough political will to get it done.

Wisconsin is welcoming Foxconn to the southeast region with nearly $3 billion in tax incentives. Letting northern Wisconsin have this economic development tool could be an added feather in political caps going into an election year, Milroy said.

"It creates a stronger Wisconsin when all corners of the state are strong," Bewley said.

She encouraged residents to contact legislators across the state.

"Let them know it's our turn; we truly need and want this," Bewley said.

No public hearing has been set for the bills yet, but Thompson encouraged residents to attend and make their voices heard. The exposition district bills will also be the focus of two grassroots lobbying efforts — the Chippewa Valley Rally Jan. 31 and Superior Days Feb. 21-22.

Even if the bills don't pass this session, Milroy said, the groundwork will be laid for the next legislative session, which begins in January 2019.

For more information on Better City Superior, visit bettercitysuperior.org/index.html.

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