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Citizens speak up for Superior exposition district

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.

Approximately 17 community members traveled to Madison by bus and car Tuesday to testify about the need for a Superior exposition district. The small group represented a broad spectrum, from education and government representatives to business owners and members of local labor unions.

"I think our team did really great," said Bruce Thompson, president of Better City Superior. "I'd go to battle with this team any day."

The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Small Business and Tourism took testimony on Senate Bill 727 at 6:30 p.m. hours later than expected due to lengthy debate on a contentious rent-to-own bill earlier in the day.

The senators listened attentively and asked questions, Thompson said, and were impressed that so many sectors of the community were represented.

"I don't think we could have done any more," he said.

Senate Bill 727, authored by Sen. Terry Moulton, R-Chippewa Falls, and Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Delta, would allow Superior and Eau Claire to impose a 0.5 percent food and beverage tax and a 2 percent room tax to raise money that would leverage private investment in large-scale economic developments. While Superior and Douglas County representatives were firmly behind the plan, a number of groups spoke out against it.

The Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association objected to the proposed 2 percent increase in the room tax, which it said would raise the total room tax to 15 percent in Superior and 15.5 percent in Eau Claire. Currently, according to the group's written testimony, the largest city in the state has a room tax of 15.1 percent while the average total tax on rooms in Wisconsin is less than 11 percent.

Other groups opposed to the bill included Visit Eau Claire and Wisconsin Association of Convention & Visitors Bureaus.

For Superior City Councilor Craig Sutherland, who represents the 8th District, the hearing was a learning experience and his first look at the inside of the Capitol. He credited Thompson for coordinating the trip, and for his years of work pushing for the exposition district.

"His passion is immeasurable," Sutherland said. "His dedication is huge."

Thompson, community banks president with National Bank of Commerce, said the bill will now stay open for comment. According to Bewley's office, the only way for average citizens to record an opinion on the bill would have been to appear at or submit testimony during or prior to Tuesday's public hearing. Organizations can still post their opinions on the Eye on Lobbying Website, https://lobbying.wi.gov/What/BillInformation/2017REG/Information/15509.

If Senate Bill 727 and its companion Assembly bill don't pass this legislative session, Thompson said, it will be poised for action in 2019.

The Superior Days delegation is headed to Madison in two weeks, which Sutherland called perfect timing. The exposition district is one of the grassroot lobbying group's main legislative issues for the third year in a row. On the back of Tuesday's hearing, Thompson said, it will show legislators that "we're not going away."

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