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State law requires city to create Tourism Committee, hand over room tax

By Portage County Business Council

Originally publishes by The Portage County Gazette 

A recently passed state bill will require the city of Stevens Point to create a Tourism Commission to handle all room tax funds.

To comply, the Stevens Point Common Council voted to create the new commission and accepted the mayor’s appointments to it during its regular meeting Monday, June 20.

The law was drafted and passed to reduce mismanagement of room tax funds, as some municipalities were moving funds supposed to be used for bolstering tourism to their general fund accounts. The municipalities did not include Stevens Point.

Room tax is collected from each hotel room stay in the community. A small tax is added on to the bill and is paid to the city quarterly. Historically, the city would use the money to fund tourism-generating events as well as the infrastructure needed to host said events.

“Before last July, they (the state) were running this through Congress, it’s now a law in Chapter 66 of the Wisconsin Statutes that says the municipalities can no longer handle their room tax money. They either have to turn it all over to the tourism entity – in our case that would be the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau – or they have to create a Tourism Commission,” said Wiza.

“Now, going back a little way, the room tax was started back in the early ’70s and was designed to generate more room-night stays,” he said. “The cities were allowed to keep up to 30 percent of that money for infrastructure.

“So, tourists come to Stevens Point, they use our roads, they want safe roads, no potholes, they want plowed roads, they use our emergency services and they use our parks. In general, they use our infrastructure. So, we could use 30 percent of the room tax to help offset some of those costs,” he said.

“The other 70 percent was supposed to go to tourism-related activities, and we have been doing that, Plover’s been doing that and the town of Plover’s been doing that,” Wiza said. “Some people (other municipalities) haven’t been doing that. So, because some people were abusing it, the state came in and said, ‘hey, you can’t handle your own stuff anymore and you’re going to have to do one of these two things.’”

Stevens Point officials met in January with officials from the village of Plover and the town of Plover and discussed how to proceed.

Wiza said they talked about the merits of creating a regional Tourism Commission to bring the surrounding communities under the same commission’s purview while simultaneously complying with the new state law.

However, Wiza said they all agreed it wasn’t in each entity’s best interest to pool it all together because each municipality had its own priorities and the smaller areas might get left behind for bigger projects.

“The general discussion was that we all have things that are important to our communities and we need to preserve those by keeping everything separate,” Wiza said. “You have a better likelihood if you have a committee for the village of Plover, they are very likely going to be supportive of events in Plover. Whereas, let’s say we made a regional committee based on population – so Stevens Point has three representatives, village of Plover has two representatives and the town of Plover has one representative – whatever event they have at Lake Pacawa might not happen because it might get outvoted, and money gets spent somewhere else.

“We don’t expect that would happen, but it’s less likely if you keep your own stuff,” he said.

Sara Brish, executive director of the Stevens Point Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, first leaned toward the option of allowing the Bureau to manage the room tax and work with the surrounding area to market the county’s tourism hotspots – something she already does on a daily basis and has the resources and experience to do effectively.

But as city officials moved toward a Tourism Commission, Brish said she thought a regional commission would better suit the area as tourists don’t know or adhere to municipal boundaries.

“The city is opting to move forward with a single municipal commission rather than the recommended zoned commission as preferred by our organization and our board of directors,” Brish said. “I think that this is a time for collaboration, this is a time for us to work with our neighboring municipalities. I feel very strongly about that and I think it would be better for our community as a whole.

“Municipal boundaries are not seen by our visitors and collectively we have more to offer,” Brish said. “Cross development opportunities, I think, would work wonderful for this area.”

She said regardless of how the Council decided to move forward, she will continue to work hard to promote Portage County to tourists because she feels all the surrounding areas combined is stronger than any one individual part.

Ultimately, the city chose to create its own Tourism Commission and bring Stevens Point stakeholders to the decision-making table.

“(Going with the Commission) is not without its own risks,” Wiza said. “We’ve got five people on there. The reason I chose who I did was because I wanted a diverse cross section. So, we’ve got someone who’s active in youth sports, we’ve got someone who’s going to be active with the university, a parks commissioner, a citizen advocate and a hotel member. The hotel member has to be there by statute, everybody else is at my discretion for recommendation, and the Common Council then approves it.

“What I didn’t want is a youth baseball, a youth soccer, a youth lacrosse, a youth hockey and, I don’t know, an arts person because they’re going to get out voted 4-1 every time,” he said.

Having a diverse pool of commissioners, it’s less likely all the room tax funding will get funneled into one segment of the area’s tourism resources, Wiza said.

“It could happen, this body could say ‘we don’t want to fund Riverfront anymore so we’re going to take that money and put it somewhere else.’ I don’t think that’s going to happen with the group we have, and I hope it doesn’t happen,” Wiza said. “Because what happens now is they meet, and we turn over the money to them, and they distribute it how they feel.

“I also wouldn’t want funding cut from the Convention & Visitors Bureau, but they could potentially do that too,” he said.

As the state law was designed, the Tourism Commission will have no oversight from the Common Council. It will virtually be autonomous.

“It’s just one of those things, we were doing it right so why are we being punished now and be forced to create another layer of red tape to do what we’ve been doing all along,” Wiza said. “My goal is to have nothing change – the events that are funded through the room tax and the organizations – they still need to be funded. They are very important parts of this community.”

Named to the commission were Jim Oliva as citizen advocate, Mike Disher for youth sports, David Bleuer for hotels and John Okonek for the Board of Parks Commissioners. A university representative will be named later.

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