A small group of business, education and political leaders in Superior made the trek to Madison last week to make the case for allowing the city to create an exposition district.

The group testified before the Assembly Committee on Ways and Means about how a 0.5% sales tax could help improve the quality of life Superior.

It was an opportunity to educate Wisconsin legislators on the great story Duluth has with its tourism economy and the opportunity that creates for Superior to complement Duluth, said Bruce Thompson, vice president of National Bank of Commerce and president of Better City Superior, which developed the idea of creating a small-market exposition district after years of studying challenges and opportunities for Superior’s growth.

“We need all of the tools in the toolbox for development,” Mayor Jim Paine said. “Superior is doing really well right now, but it’s worth remembering that this is still a turning point in the development in our city, and it could turn in either direction. It could go to the status quo stagnation that we’ve had for decades, or we could keep moving forward. The only way we can keep moving forward is by continuing to invest in the community, and we need every tool at our disposal to keep doing that.”

The exposition district, which is currently subject of bills in the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate, would allow the city to use an additional half percent sales tax on prepared food and beverages and room taxes to help with economic development in the city. The goal is to use public funding to leverage private partnerships to enhance the quality of life in Superior and draw tourists by creating amenities that complement those available in Duluth.

The plan garnered approval of more than 75% of city voters during the high-turnout presidential election in 2016.

“I thought we had an excellent team down there,” Thompson said. “I thought the mayor spoke very well about city initiatives and momentum, and the opportunities we have. We had representatives from businesses that spoke on the need to continue the progression so we can be a real quality community so they can land their workforce here and recruit people here so they can work for their companies. And then we had the educational component.”

From left, Jean Gould of Superior Refinery, Ann Porter of LHB, Charlie Glazman of WITC, Superior Mayor Jim Paine, Kevin Boreen of Exodus Machines, Bruce Thompson of National Bank of Commerce, Chancellor Renee Wachter of UW-Superior and Steve Burgess of NBC pose for a photo outside the Capitol in Madison on Thursday, Sept. 26. (Courtesy of Bruce Thompson)
From left, Jean Gould of Superior Refinery, Ann Porter of LHB, Charlie Glazman of WITC, Superior Mayor Jim Paine, Kevin Boreen of Exodus Machines, Bruce Thompson of National Bank of Commerce, Chancellor Renee Wachter of UW-Superior and Steve Burgess of NBC pose for a photo outside the Capitol in Madison on Thursday, Sept. 26. (Courtesy of Bruce Thompson)

Charlie Glazman of Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College said Chancellor Renee Wachter of the University of Wisconsin-Superior explained the need for a more inviting Superior to attract students and staff to the campuses in Superior.

“We need to change the culture of Superior … if the perception of Superior is unchanging, that we’re not open to new development … why would anyone want to come here or live here?” Glazman said.

“I think it was a positive, open discussion,” said Ann Porter, an interior designer and project manager with LHB. She said the goal of the exposition district is to maintain the momentum Superior has seen in terms of housing, schools, a new fire hall and the recent renovation of the library and would give the city the opportunity to develop the next element, quality of life.

“I’m not going to say everyone on the committee was head-over-heels for it, but I would say the majority were, and we’ll see the result here soon – definitely a trip worth making,” said Kevin Boreen, CEO of Exodus Machines.

Several who traveled down to Madison on Thursday, Sept. 26 said Rep. John Macco, R-Ledgeview, chairman of the committee, was open to idea and legislators, some of them skeptical, had good questions.

“I don’t feel the door was slammed shut by those individuals either,” Boreen said.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” Paine said. “I mean we’ve had some trouble with the GOP caucus in the past trying to get this through, but I think they were much more receptive, particularly the chairman of the committee.”

Bill McCoshen of Capitol Consultants in Madison said there will be more work to do in coming weeks before the committee considers the bill in executive session in late-October or early-November to convince the skeptics.

“I think Bruce Thompson did an exceptional job of nullifying those concerns by saying ‘hey, if we need to ask our taxpayers again to get this done, add that as an amendment,’” McCoshen said. “’Give us the authority, subject to a binding referendum, and we’ll go do it.’ I think that helped a lot.”

Paine said he’s more optimistic for this bill, largely because of work done in the past that has gotten it this far.

“Every time this bill has come up, it’s picked up a little steam, picked up new sponsors, and I don’t know that it’s ever gotten much traction in the assembly,” Paine said. “I wasn’t really counting votes or anything, but I think it could pass out of committee.”

A similar Senate Bill in 2017-18 legislative session failed when it didn’t come up for a vote before the session ended.

“I feel better about our chances this time around,” McCoshen said. “Bruce and the team have done a nice job about making the case.”