Promoters of an economic development initiative in Superior were hoping for a strong endorsement - and they got it.
Tuesday, they approved the "Better City" advisory referendum by a wide margin: 75.47 percent versus 24.53 percent.
It's an early step in an effort to give Superiorites the option to collect economic development funds through a tax that largely affects tourists and those who dine out. The plan now advances to a binding referendum and then requires approval by Wisconsin legislators.
“We’re not asking the state to fix our problems. We’re going there with a solution and just asking for their permission to create a tax that has local support," Bruce Thompson, who had led a three-year effort to jumpstart the city’s original downtown, told BusinessNorth in September.
Their hope is to create an “exposition district” similar to the one in Milwaukee that financed the new Bucks arena. It would be funded by a tax of 5 cents on every $10 spent (1/2 of 1 percent) on prepared food and beverages sold in Superior plus a 2.75 percent additional hotel/motel tax and one-half of 1 percent tax on rental cars. Once a district is created, private bonds could be sold to fund construction. They would be repaid by future collections of the new tax.
If the proposal continues to advance, they hope to construct an indoor sports facility with the equivalent of two soccer fields on indoor turf. It would be used for soccer, lacrosse or emerging sports – protected from the weather when conditions are cold or inclement. Hosting Wisconsin school tournaments will be a major goal.
Creating such a tax for a small city, however, requires jumping several hurdles. Wisconsin only has two such districts – the one in Milwaukee and one in Green Bay. They can only be created by the Legislature. So when promoters of the proposed district make their pitch in Madison, they wanted to provide strong evidence it’s supported by Superior residents.
“We think it’s a small investment in the future to go for the right types of development for our community,” said Thompson who, as community bank president of National Bank of Commerce in Superior, is experienced in commercial financing. “We want to have a modern, high-quality downtown hotel bolted to the convention center where we could host good-size weddings and similar events. We would also welcome Wisconsin associations to gather here for events.”
Last December, the group unveiled a detailed wish list. It includes:
• A 150-room hotel.
• A 20,000-square-foot convention center.
• A 50,000-square-foot water park.
• A sports field house.
• A movie theater.
• A corporate campus.
Combined, the development could cost $125 million, said Lindsey Jacobson, executive director of the Business Improvement District.
“The thought is that these things work well together,” Jacobson said in September, although they likely won’t be accomplished simultaneously.
The binding referendum will be held next April. It would provide voters a much greater amount of detail about the exposition district plan.
If those victories can be obtained, proponents will take their proposal to Wisconsin legislators when they debate the biennial budget next July.
“We have completely reworked the existing legislation, which Milwaukee has used since 1994. We want to run it up the flag pole for legislative review,” Thompson said. Key to promoting the measure will be to explain the unique situation Superior faces – being a border city adjacent to a state that provides significant financial support to its municipalities – money that has been successful in stimulating the economy. About 3.5 million people annually visit Duluth, generating $10 million in tourism taxes that are reinvested into the economy, he explained.
“People are anxious to have the city be more vibrant. We could become a community that is on the move and is a place young people want to live. We’ve got to create real value so they want to have a family here. Whatever we get is more horsepower than we have now. We’re going to be grateful for whatever we get.”