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La Crosse Civic Center Construction Could Start Later This Year

$42M Project Designed To Attract Bigger Conventions, Freshen Up 40-Year-Old Facility

La Crosse Center exterior
Image Courtesy of the La Crosse Center

A $42-million plan to update and add on to La Crosse’s nearly 40-year old civic center is closer to starting construction later this year.

The La Crosse Common Council approved conceptual plans for the La Crosse Center last week, clearing the way for final plans by sometime in April.

La Crosse Center officials had to go back to the drawing board last summer after Mayor Tim Kabat vetoed a conceptual plan that would have allowed the civic center addition to be built in Riverside Park on the banks of the Mississippi River.

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“It really focuses the expansion area towards Riverside Park and towards the river without actually going into the park,” Kabat said, of the current concept.

The project calls for expanding the lobby area, adding more restrooms and concessions and making it easier to get around the building that was built in 1980 and added onto in the 90s. The project will also include a lot of deferred maintenance around the building that will refresh it’s look.

One of the reasons for the expansion is to attract larger conventions to the area.

“Over the last seven years, we’ve seen a 27 percent increase in attendees of these types of meetings,” said A.J. Frels, executive director of Explore La Crosse, the county’s convention and visitor’s bureau.

“We need the larger space, we need the flexibility to accommodate and bring those folks to the area,” he said.

Frels said La Crosse is also competing with other communities that have either expanded or are planning to expand their convention spaces.

While the La Crosse Center board works to finalize plans, Kabat is trying to figure out how the city will pay for the $42-million project.

The city has already set aside about $2 million in reserve funds and the state of Wisconsin has approved a nearly $5-million grant for the project.

“We’ve had recent conversations with the convention and visitor’s bureau and others about looking at options like our local (hotel) room tax, contributions from La Crosse County, an increase to the ticket surcharge,” Kabat said. “We’re really trying to make this a more regional financing piece, rather than just the city of La Crosse.”

The hotel room tax is 8 percent now in La Crosse County. State law allows communities to set as much as a 12-percent room tax to pay for tourism-related projects.

Members of Explore La Crosse which represents communities in the La Crosse area that have hotels will have to approve a hotel room tax increase.

“We are open to conversation about how that may work. We did a short survey with our members and while they were not in favor of a full 12 percent, they did say that they could see reasoning why there may be an increase in room tax to move the project forward,” Frels said.

“What that percentage is? We’re not there yet, but I think we need to have those conversations with the city and the mayor and see where we can go from here,” he said.

Frels said some communities in eastern Wisconsin have created a 10-percent hotel room tax.

The president of the La Crosse Center board said the facility is more than just a place to hold conventions.

“It’s not only for the conventions. But it’s for the people of La Crosse who use this facility constantly,” Brent Smith said.

Smith said a La Crosse Center addition is anticipated to have an $8.7 million increased economic impact on the region. He said the facility already has a $35-$40 million impact on tourism.

Once everything is finalized, construction is expected to take about a year.