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Delegation makes pitch for a better Superior

This could be the year Superior finally gets permission to determine its own success.

Even before delegates headed to Madison this week to lobby for the creation of an exposition district, local legislators were circulating a bill, seeking sponsorship, that would allow the City Council to utilize tourism taxes to support economic development.

Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Mason, and Rep. Nick Milroy, D-South Range, started circulating a co-sponsorship memo for standalone legislation to allow Better City Superior to work with the City Council to create an exposition district in Superior.

“We’ll take it anyway we can get it,” said Bruce Thompson, president of Better City Superior.

The coalition of business leaders spent nearly three years studying the city’s economy, challenges and opportunities for economic success before introducing the idea of creating an exposition district for Superior.

When the idea was rolled out to voters in November 2016, more than 75 percent of voters favored creating an exposition district in Superior during the high-turnout presidential election, which satisfies the referendum requirement of the new bill, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau.

Such districts, which utilize tourism taxes to create assets such as the Lambeau Field expansion in Green Bay and the new Bucks stadium in Milwaukee, were allowed because of special enabling legislation adopted in Madison.

Senate Bill 727, which would have enabled Superior to create an exposition district, was passed by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Small Business and Tourism by a bipartisan 8-1 vote last March, but the Senate adjourned the session a week later, and the bill died because it never got a vote by the full Senate.

According to the LRB, the new bill is a rewrite of SB 727.

“Right now economic development requires assistance,” Bewley said. “It requires a commitment by local units of government … and a revenue stream that is going to support long-term projects. It’s revenue you can get by having an exposition tax and having an exposition district. For me, rural areas in the north of the state have a very specific set of challenges. We’re always competing with Minnesota. We have a limited ability to get funds from local units of government … because there’s revenue caps everywhere.”

She said having the authority to create a hospitality tax is a huge opportunity.

“I believe it is a very important ability for Superior to have,” Bewley said.

Thompson is optimistic that legislation will pass this year.

“Well, we’ve been penetrating down there for four years for more awareness of the need and the uniqueness of the Superior area,” Thompson said. “I think that’s a big misunderstanding down there. I don’t think they understand the dynamics of this market in general, so they understand the discrepancy between the way Minnesota funds and supports much of the very same activities and social support nets and such, and how it impacts Superior when we’re at a disadvantage.”

By creating an exposition district, the city would be able to establish tourism taxes that could be used to support economic development efforts that would complement Duluth and create a better quality of life for residents in Superior.

“Superior deserves some special accommodation so Superior can be on sound footing with our neighbor, Duluth, and complement and improve the overall market,” Thompson said.

He said it seems like things are coming together for the legislation to pass this year.

The only cost to local taxpayers would be a nickel for every $10 spent on prepared food and beverages in local restaurants. It's a half-percent increase in the sales tax, less than the 2.75 percent tax on top of the sales tax people pay when they dine out in Duluth.

A 2.75 percent increase on hotel and motel taxes — paid for by visitors to the community — would help the exposition district leverage bonding for public-private partnerships to encourage development in Superior's downtown.

The vision includes about a $100 million development that could include a theater, hotel, indoor water park, convention center and in indoor field house for sporting events.

“There are many ways we could see that exposition accomplished,” Bewley said.

“We hope to have some time with the governor … when we’re down there for Superior Days,” Thompson said. “I don’t feel that we have any resistance there. It’s a matter of ‘Hey, this has to be fully understood by both sides of the aisle’ to get permission to do it.”