Archive for February, 2010

The room tax flap with the CVB…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on February 24, 2010 by Jim Rosenberg

Today’s Wausau Daily Herald includes coverage of last night’s Wausau City Council meeting in which there was a discussion of the room tax allocations for 2010.  Normally, these decisions would have been done in the course of the budget discussions that concluded last fall, but it has been a particularly thorny issue this time around.  Room tax revenues are down because of lower occupancy and possibly average room rates, due to the state of the economy over the past year.

There are indications that travel could be rebounding in some sectors. For example, passenger enplanements at Central Wisconsin Airport were up 16 percent in January 2010 compared to the same month a year earlier. Still, the city can’t allocate money that it doesn’t have good reason to believe will be there. Upside surprises can be dealt with easily, but having revenues come in lower creates a far more difficult problem.

The Wausau/Central Wisconsin Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) has been supported by a 2.5 percent room tax in all of the participating communities. Wausau is not required to be a member, but I am a supporter of the CVB and when I came into office in 1998, one of my first priorities was to have the City of Wausau join with the other member communities in this effort. For years, Wausau was the single largest contributor to the CVB and we remain one of the largest funding sources today.

We’ve had issues over the years with the CVB that we worked through, including a slow entry into online marketing in the early years.  Frankly, it’s still pretty weak: . There was also a period of time when the CVB was receiving double-digit formula-driven increases in funding while other areas of the city’s budget were extremely tight. After a number of discussions, we decided to stay the course and not cap the large increases that were going to the CVB. “We shouldn’t be punished for doing a great job,” said the CVB. But such formulas are a two-edged sword. There is a certain “shoot at everything that flies and claim everything that falls” aspect to the work of the CVB. They didn’t deserve all of the credit when revenues were rising any more than they deserve the blame for things heading south.
By agreement with the member communities, the Badger State Games added another half percent to the room tax contribution toward CVB. For reasons that may have had little or nothing to do with the CVB, the Badger State Games started out as a major event, but they have steadily declined in their local impact over the years. CVB member communities were coughing up tens of thousands of dollars in annual host rights fees, but high-participation events that were formerly part of the program here were being shunted off to other communities. As a result, the Badger State Games in recent years have been a very expensive and severely under-performing venture that has cost the City of Wausau and our other CVB partners hundreds of thousands of dollars. These disappointing outcomes were evident long before the recession.
In terms of comparable value, Wausau has been paying far more for the Badger State Games than it contributed to ArtsBlock or the Leah Yawkey Woodson Art Museum. Both are year-around operations that contribute a great deal to our appeal as a destination for visitors. With room taxes down, both would have their city contributions slashed if we were to decide to continue providing the additional half percent room tax to CVB that is no longer required for the Badger State Games. I’m happy that the CVB has moved on from the Badger State Games, but it was the only reasonable conclusion that its board could have reached, looking at the return on investment.
As chair of the Finance Committee for the City of Wausau, I am well aware of the challenges that the current economic situation entails for everyone. To make this year’s budget, the city eliminated five positions. These were not just numbers in spreadsheet, but involved real people who lost their jobs. Likewise, I know that ArtsBlock cut their payroll and there were reductions in other non-profits, too. For those who think that there should be more of that so that we can help fund a new venture into sports marketing with the CVB, I vehemently disagree. Critics don’t say where that money should be made up, but if it’s the vague “cut something else” approach, it could be more jobs loss.
Some are saying that the half percent no longer required for Badger State Games is being diverted into the city’s general fund. This is not true. The city has always taken a share of the 8 percent total room tax to use toward general expenses.  (Interestingly, nobody seems to wonder what the other CVB communities do with their room taxes beyond what they are required to pony up for the CVB.)

The City of Wausau runs a comprehensive program of room tax grants, which supports a number of events and activities, some of which directly support tourism and quality of life. No other CVB member community does what Wausau does in this regard and it is targeted directly to the constituency that Wausau City Council members are elected to serve.

Under the proposal passed by the Finance Committee and now being sent back for review, the CVB would receive $181,250 this year. This is more than the city’s contribution to Wausau Area Events, Main Street, the Performing Arts Foundation, the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, and the Center for Visuals Arts combined.

The City of Wausau isn’t just a member or a customer of the Wausau Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. It’s essentially one of the owners. Either the CVB needs to work within the original agreement between the member communities for a 2.5 percent room tax, or other sources of revenue must be found. Having the contribution remain at 3 percent with the end of the Badger State Games obligation is not really a very reasonable option, given all the factors we have. The purpose for which the additional half percent was being assessed no longer exists. Creating a new reason to assess it – which is exactly what the sports marketing initiative is designed to do — doesn’t seem timely or prudent.


Politics Friday: a new meaning for wingnut…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2010 by Jim Rosenberg

It’s been an interesting week, from Washington DC to Wausau. On the local front, Tuesday primaries were held in four of the 12 Wausau districts for city council. I don’t recall if we’ve had more than that in recent history, but it shows a high level of interest. David Nutting and Dan McMullen advanced in the 10th District, with Nutting putting up especially good numbers. Sherry Abitz and Tom Wolfahrt moved forward in the 11th and Abitz had a strong showing. Both Nutting and Wolfahrt currently serve on the Marathon County Board, so voters should have some familiarity with them.

Sherry Abitz has a couple of terms in on the city council and has been pushing a program of neighborhood involvement for several years that I think serves her and her constituents well. McMullen is the enigma in all of this, but somebody had to come in second in that primary.

In the second district, Romey Wagner and Greg Foye will face off in the general election. Wagner is an interesting person with a great background that includes working on water projects in Kenya. Foye has been active in the Longfellow neighborhood group and breaking down the vote, it appeared that his votes clustered in that area. In the 3rd, Jonathan Havel will be running against Chuck Szalewski. This district includes downtown Wausau, but nobody would have known it by the early campaign discussion so it will be interesting to see how this one plays out.

Each city council district has between 3,300 and 3,400 residents.  In a monument to voter apathy, the turnout ranged from a low of 95 to a high  of 123 TOTAL votes in each of these district primaries.  That’s pretty sick.  (But in much higher participation area primary, Dennis “Cosmo Guy” Lerch picked up 25 percent in the primary to face Dick Lupton for Merrill Street & Weed Commissioner, who had 45 percent.)

On the state level, the Marathon County Democratic Party hosted two candidates for Lieutenant Governor at their Thursday night meeting, Milwaukee Alderman Tony Zielinski and Tony Sanders of Madison. Zielinski has a “Buy American” stump speech that may appeal well to labor.  Sanders has a significant resume that includes stints as vice president of economic Development and public policy of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce as well as serving on the staff of 2nd District U.S. Congress Rep. Tammy Baldwin.

A lieutenant governor campaign is a little strange because voters don’t directly elect the person. Instead, it’s a party function and it creates an entirely different dynamic. In my early estimation, either would probably have the chops for the job. Sanders comes off as someone who is extremely genuine and has a very good picture of the duties. He also provides a strategic geographical advantage to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett that won’t exist if he shares his ballot position with another Milwaukee political figure.

Congressman Dave Obey has been in the 7th District this week and a few of us had the opportunity to speak with him at length on Wednesday, which is always interesting and thoroughly educational. He’s an advocate of putting a dollop of ice cream in after-dinner coffee. (Sorry, but I’m not going to get into the meat of the discussion except to tell you that I think Obey is a thoroughly remarkable, passionate legislator and someone that this district is very fortunate to have for a host of reasons that range from global to local.)

In other news from the 7th, half-term ex-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin endorsed Sean Duffy. Two words: big deal. It’s not like she was going to endorse Obey and it’s not like Dan Mielke has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the primary, let alone the general election.

CPAC is meeting in Washington this week and one of their prominent sponsors is the John Birch Society. Well, at least they’re honest — and if people want to sit around listening to Glen Beck, Coulter, Cheney and the rest, well, it’s their dime and you can’t underestimate their commitment.  And speaking of commitment, we’re wrapping up a week that gave a whole new meaning to the term “wingnut.”  Joe Stack was a guy with tax issues who decided to fly his airplane into an IRS office building on a suicide mission, evoking imagery of Oklahoma City and 9-11 in one murderous, fell swoop. Taxes are tough. Especially for people with airplanes.


Enjoying Vancouver…

Posted in Uncategorized on February 13, 2010 by Jim Rosenberg

Of the many places we’ve visited, Vancouver is a favorite and it has easily earned our return visits.  Seeing the Olympic torch going through Stanley Park and watching the opening ceremonies for the 2010 Winter Olympics tonight brings nothing but warm feelings for the city and our incredible neighbor to the north, Canada.  Here’s hoping for a wonderful and successful event that helps bring the world a little closer together, as the Olympics always tend to do. 


Living in interesting times…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on February 7, 2010 by Jim Rosenberg

I’ve said it before, but the old Chinese proverb “May you live in interesting times” may not have been intended as a blessing, but a curse. I’m currently living in interesting times – although I don’t really think of it as a curse. The thing I’ve always said to people about time and the times is that “I don’t know if you’ll ever run out of money, but I will guarantee you that you will someday run out of time.”

Throughout my career and my adult life, I’ve pursued a course of stability and predictability. At 18, I joined the Air Force and I ended up editing weekly newspapers and doing public affairs work for a nuclear bombardment wing. I left in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree and six years of experience. It was a recession, but I ended up with the opportunity to come back to my hometown of Wausau, continuing my career doing public relations for a natural gas utility.

The more things have changed in the energy industry over the past three decades, the more they have stayed the same. When I began, energy prices, supply, infrastructure, conservation and energy security were the big issues. That remains true today, with the added twists of renewable sources and global climate change theory thrown in for good measure. (Whether you believe in man-made global climate change or not, there is absolutely nothing to recommend energy waste from the standpoint of the environment, economics and energy security. There is every reason to pursue a course of increased efficiency and a larger share of renewable, domestic sources in our energy mix.)

But I digress. People are naturally resistant to change and it’s always easier to just keep on doing what you’ve been doing, to the extent that it works for you. When Wisconsin Fuel & Light was being sold to Wisconsin Public Service in a process that consumed most of the year 2000, I began to look for another avenue for my career and I ended up with several interesting offers. Based on what has happened since that time, I’m happy that I did what I did, which was to continue on with Wisconsin Public Service when the sale concluded in 2001.

I’ll be the first to tell you that it didn’t always make the best fit for my experience and interests. For example, I did very little writing in my new capacity. When I was director of public relations at Wisconsin Fuel & Light, it was a much smaller company where everyone had to wear many hats. Communications was largely a one-person show, so I did a lot of writing. I interacted regularly with customers. I handled the advertising.  There were presentations, correspondence, bill inserts, media interviews, testimony for the Public Service Commission, customer service programs to write and implement – you name it. By necessity, there was a ton of collaboration into every aspect of the business.

It wasn’t that way at Wisconsin Public Service because the company was much larger and spread out. There were people in the headquarters and a fairly large public affairs staff, so things were far more specialized. I wasn’t talking with the CEO and top officers on a daily basis.  Everyone had their respective areas that they worked with, many of which were all slivers of my former capacity. But WPSC had some big things on the horizon, including more than a billion dollars worth of high-impact projects like the Arrowhead-Weston transmission line and later, the construction of Weston 4. It made sense to have public affairs boots on the ground and someone like me, with an intimate knowledge of this community and its people.

It was good work. I enjoyed my co-workers and it was also synergistic with an avocation that I had developed of serving in local government, as well as many other community service capacities – something that the company not only supported, but also encouraged. There was still freelance writing and photography to keep my skills honed in those areas.  I got into economic development and earned a professional certificate.  I returned to my aviation roots on the boards of the Wausau Downtown Airport and the Central Wisconsin Airport, while working with other types of energy and transportation infrastructure.  I jumped on board with social media.  I learned French.  It was difficult to tell where the company’s brand ended and my own began (something that often didn’t necessarily matter.)

With the flexibility and resources to support it, I was able to privately pursue a passion to see some different parts of the world in what – looking back on it – seems like a dizzying schedule of personal travel. I decided to get my first passport and spend my 40th birthday in Paris. A dozen years later,  I’ve been there many times, along with a lot of other places on four continents. Based on the costs and scheduling flexibility required to do it, I would not be able to embark on such an adventure now, but I was able to seize the moment — (really, more than a decade) — while it was there.  Some of this stuff gets up toward to pointy end of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous pyramid.

So now, the sojourn with Wisconsin Public Service has come to end and it is again time to begin a new chapter.  Of course, a lot of things that may have seemed like extra-curricular activities remain a part of “me, inc.,” — at least for the time being.  I’m armed with more experience, connections and affiliations than I’ve ever had before.   I don’t have a gun to my head to start next week. I don’t really even need to figure out my retirement anymore when that time eventually comes, provided I can simply protect and manage the assets already built up for that purpose.

Something else Maslow said: “You will either step forward into growth or you will step back into safety.”  In my own case, having the possibility of the backward step effectively eliminated only leaves room for growth.

So right now, there is time. Interesting time.