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The development that changed everything PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 15 June 2016 19:38

The Port Washington city government’s decision to sell public marina land as a site for a commercial entertainment complex produced not just a controversy that has polarized the community but also a cliché: “catalytic development.”
    The term, as an often-repeated staple of the cheerleading for the Blues Factory led by Mayor Tom Mlada, is meant to imply that the development, like a catalyst that accelerates a chemical reaction, will spur additional economic development.
    The term may be new to Port Washington, but the effect it describes has been a force here for years as the essential driver of the city’s remarkable downtown resurgence. The Port Washington marina, owned by the taxpayers and operated as a division of the city government, has proven to be the ultimate catalytic development.
    It is not an exaggeration to say that the commercial investments that have powered the revitalization of the downtown, including the Boerner Building, Duluth Trading Co., Harbour Lights commercial and condominium building and other businesses, would not have happened without the marina that brought the beauty of Lake Michigan into the business district and is a magnet for visitors who provide essential fuel for the community’s economic engine.
    City officials reported in January that the marina operation closed its 2015 books in the red, apparently the result of reduced boat traffic caused by unusually cold summer weather and a fuel contract that failed to anticipate the drop in oil prices. But if the marina lost money last year, it was only in a technical accounting sense. By other measures the marina made money for the city, lots of it, as it has for decades.
    Based on a study by the University of Michigan and data compiled by the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, the direct economic impact of the marina is estimated to be about $4 million a year. This consists of the money spent in the city by people who use the marina by launching boats at the marina ramps, renting slips for their boats, cruising to this port in their motor yachts and sailboats and going on sport fishing outings on the vessels of the charter fleet.
    The estimate does not include the money spent by visitors and city residents attracted to downtown dining and shopping by the compelling intimacy with the water offered by a marina complex nestled in the heart of the city a few steps from  the main business street.
     The marina also pumps cash directly into city coffers. It is, in effect, a city department that functions as a business, paying an annual fee into the general fund from revenues generated by launch passes, slip fees and fuel sales, which totalled $736,000 last year. The city collected $45,000 from the marina fee in 2015. With ample reserves built up over years of successful operation, the marina pays the city whether its financial statements show a profit or a loss.
    Marina revenues, besides funding the operating expenses of sprawling harbor facilities, including docks, walkways, landscaping and a staff to manage it all, has also covered some of the infrastructure costs of Rotary Park adjacent to the marina. Over the years, the city government has not been bashful about dipping into marina reserves to cover expenses only loosely related to the harbor operation.
    Widely admired for its first-class facilities and efficient operation by city employees, the Port Washington marina outshines other municipal marinas on the lake whose management is outsourced to private companies, notably Sheboygan and Manitowoc.
    The cliché fits like a glove. When elected officials in the last two decades of the 20th century voted to invest in the harbors, docks and shore facilities that make up the marina complex, they did more than fill a need for safe, accessible boating facilities. They created a development that truly has been catalytic. The marina changed everything.
    As anyone who has taken Chemistry 101 knows, chemical reactions don’t always turn out as hoped. The hope for the Blues Factory iteration of a catalytic development, which requires the sacrifice of marina space and water views, has to be that it will not erode the success of the city’s proven catalytic development.       

 
Taking power from the people PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 08 June 2016 21:34

These are hard times for the Grafton School District. Some of its school buildings are in terrible shape. One of them is verging on being unfit to use. A referendum authorizing spending to fix the problems was defeated. In the aftermath, the school superintendent resigned.
    Hard times, indeed. Yet a reason for optimism exists amid the angst because there is a way out of this crisis, and the school board is already mapping a route. A reassessment of the most critical needs is underway in preparation for a new referendum presumably designed to be more palatable to voters. The vote could be held as early as November. If not then, it would likely be part of the spring election.
    A new referendum is the only means the school district has to raise money to deal with facilities that are so deteriorated parents and teachers have expressed worries about the safety of students. If State Sen. Duey Stroebel had his way, even those means would not be available.
    Stroebel (R-Saukville), whose district includes a part of the Grafton School District, sponsored a bill in the last session of the Legislature that would have banned school districts from holding a referendum for two years following a failed referendum.
     The bill, excoriated by school officials from across the state who predicted the very situation Grafton would face if the measure passed, is but one example of the efforts by the Wisconsin Legislature to undermine local control of local government.
    Fortunately, this one did not pass. The same cannot be said, however, about a bill intended to take away the power of local elected officials to enact ordinances in their communities to control a growing environmental nuisance.
    In March, Gov. Scott Walker signed into law a bill that prohibits communities from making their own rules regulating plastic bags and other plastic containers.
    No Wisconsin municipality was considering regulation of plastic bags when the law was enacted, but it is reasonable to assume that one day communities might want to apply a small fee for each bag used or even ban them. The bags are ubiquitous and so abundant they seem to be reproducing. As litter, they are unsightly. They last virtually forever and with an estimated 100 billion used in the U.S. every year are an expensive waste disposal problem. Only 12% of the bags are recycled
    Of more concern, they’ve been found to be a threat to marine life. In streams, lakes and oceans where windblown or other discarded bags and containers accumulate, the plastic leaches harmful chemicals into the water. Plastic bags and containers make up most the volume of the great garbage patches that plague the oceans and are even beginning to be seen on the Great Lakes.
    The cost of dealing with discarded plastic packaging, plus the cost derived from the greenhouse gases emitted in their production, is estimated at $40 billion a year by the World Economic Institute.
    None of this suggests that Wisconsin communities would be rushing to regulate plastic bags if they weren’t prevented from doing so by state law, but certainly local elected councils and boards should have the authority to apply such regulations in their cities, villages, towns and counties, as a number of municipalities in the United States have done.
    Why has the Wisconsin Legislature made it its business to use the power of state law to protect the commercial use of plastic bags? One answer is that such legislation is on the to-do list of the American Legislature Exchange Council (ALEC), the organization funded by business interests that has an especially avid following in the Republican majority of the Wisconsin Legislature. Beyond that, it fits a pattern of concerted effort to preempt local government, just as does the attempt to use the power of the state to shackle school districts trying to deal with their building needs through referendums.
     Some of the same state officials who push this agenda give lip service to a political philosophy based on shrinking the federal and state governments and transferring power to the people at local level.
    One word describes this better than any other: hypocrisy.

 
Get onboard the tourism train PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 01 June 2016 19:11

Tourism makes the world go ‘round.

That might be a bit of a stretch, but it is certainly safe to say that people who travel keep economies spinning.
    Tourism, in fact, is the biggest industry in the world, with the largest employment and largest contribution to gross national product of any category of business.
    Tourism generates more revenue in the United States than in any other nation. In 2014, it contributed more than $1.4 trillion to this country’s GDP.
    This isn’t your grandfather’s brand of tourism, the kind that back in the day meant a trip to the likes of Miami Beach, Las Vegas or Disneyland. Today in the U.S. almost any community can be a tourist destination. Americans are curious about their country and eager to get on the road to experience it in all of its manifestations.
    Communities that aren’t making an effort to attract visitors are missing an opportunity to grow their economies in ways that benefit all of their residents.
    Which is why a lot of head scratching is going on over a news story in last week’s Ozaukee Press reporting that  the Village of Belgium is considering abolishing its hotel room tax.
    When a representative of the Belgium Chamber of Commerce appeared before the village’s Finance and Personnel Committee to discuss plans to promote tourism, the committee chairman poured cold water on the Chamber’s initiative by casting doubt on the funding source.
    “I don’t think keeping a (room) tax in place is a good idea,” Andrew Ohlson said. “If it wasn’t there, would we go to the hotel and tax them for tourism? No.”
    Village President Vickie Boehnlein was of a like mind. She questioned the tax because it applies to only one business in Belgium, the Rodeway Inn, the village’s sole lodging establishment.
     Belgium officials seem to have a misconception of the room tax option provided by state law. They talk of it as though it is a punitive assessment that is an onerous requirement for lodging businesses. The reality is that the room tax is a boon that works to the advantage of these businesses while also benefiting the communities in which they are located.
    Room taxes, of course, are not paid by hotels (or motels or bed and breakfast places). They are paid by the establishments’ customers. The taxes added to lodging bills across the country are so common they are taken for granted by travelers.
    Room taxes directly benefit hotels and other tourism businesses. Under Wisconsin’s well-crafted law, the taxes are capped at 8% and starting next year a minimum of 70% of the revenue they produce for the municipality has to be spent to promote tourism—which generates more customers for the businesses that apply the taxes.
    The ultimate beneficiaries of the room tax are the residents of the communities that collect the taxes. The tourism promoted by this tax revenue strengthens local economies, attracts new businesses, creates jobs and supports stores and restaurants that are enjoyed by residents as much as by visitors.
    The City of Port Washington is a case in point. This year the Port Washington Tourism Council will spend $163,000 for tourism promotion, most of it for advertising the city’s offerings around the Midwest region. All of the money comes from the city room tax. Room tax revenues also fund grants made by the Tourism Council to support events and projects that contribute to the tourism economy.           
    The results speak to the program’s success: In 2015, based on state Department of Tourism estimates, visitors contributed $14.5 million to the Port Washington economy. Without these tourism dollars, Port Washington residents would not have the vibrant downtown they now enjoy as another benefit of room-tax funded tourism promotion.
    This is just part of the visitor surge in Ozaukee County. According to the Department of Tourism, direct spending by visitors in Ozaukee County totalled $92.5 million in 2015, a 3% increase over 2014. More than 2,000 people were employed in the tourism industry in the county last year.
    Tourism in Wisconsin is an express train carrying communities to a future of growth—in economic activity, tax bases and diversity of features enjoyed by residents and visitors alike. If Belgium officials don’t adjust their attitudes about promoting their community, that train is going to speed past the village without stopping.
    Sitting next to I-43 a scant mile from Harrington Beach State Park and astride the Ozaukee Interurban Trail and offering the unique features of the Luxembourg American Cultural Center and a European-themed residential and commercial development, Belgium is well positioned to develop its own tourism economy.
    The Village Board should encourage the Chamber of Commerce in its plans to get the word out about what Belgium has to offer. The best way to do that is to keep the room tax in place and direct that all of the revenue it generates be used for promotion. With that, Belgium will someday likely have more than one hotel to collect the room tax.   

 
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