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DNR report critical of legislation for Racine hotel and convention center
CONVENTION CENTER PROPOSAL

DNR report critical of legislation for Racine hotel and convention center

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Sheraton Hotel main image

A Dallas developer has proposed building a $48 million, 173-room hotel and convention center that would connect with Festival Hall on Racine's lakefront, as shown in this image.

RACINE — The plans for a hotel and convention center in Downtown Racine have received some scrutiny from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources which could delay the project.

The City of Racine would like to enter into a public-private relationship with Texas developer Gatehouse to construct a 174-room Sheraton Hotel and convention center connecting to Festival Hall. But it will need some help from the state Legislature to do it.

A bipartisan group of local officials, including Racine Mayor Cory Mason, have been working to craft legislation for the development.

Bills have been introduced in the Assembly and Senate to use land along Pershing Park to develop the lakefront property and would allow the city to enter into such a public-private relationship.

“Right now, the area that they’re looking at to build a structure, there’s actually a parking lot there,” State Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, said. “I don’t think a lot of people drive down to sit in a parking lot, to sit amongst the cars to look at the lake.”

The hope was to possibly have a restaurant on the first floor; rooms to book for conferences or meetings; have the rooftop open to the public; and the hotel would operate the floors in between.

The DNR reviewed the legislation and “has concluded that the legislation is not consistent with protecting and enhancing a public trust purpose.”

In the DNR report dated July 15, the department states “the loss of opportunities for recreation and enjoyment of natural scenic beauty within the lake bed areas as a result of private development will outweigh the potential enhancement of such uses within a limited portion of the area.”

The DNR also had some issues with the lack of “management controls that assure that the lake bed area will be used only for public trust purposes,” and that it authorizes the private use of a “substantial portion of the lake bed previously granted to the City of Racine for public purposes. These uses are neither minor nor incidental to free public trust purposes.”

Officials surprised by report

Local officials, having worked with the DNR to craft the legislation, where stunned by the report.

“We spent a fair bit of time talking to the DNR before the bill was introduced, so yeah, there was definitely some surprises with their analysis of the bill considering how much time we spent talking to them,” Mason said. “The goal isn’t to rewrite standards for lakebed legislation for the entire State of Wisconsin; the goal is to green-light a great economic development project in our Downtown to celebrate our lakefront.”

State Rep. Robert Wittke, R-Caledonia, also was surprised by the report.

“I thought we crafted legislation that would have at least met (the DNR’s) test initially,” Wittke said. “I didn’t anticipate there would be a DNR report with the analysis that I’ve seen which would basically, potentially, slow down the process we have until we get some of those things worked out.”

State Sen. Bob Wirch, D-Somers, originally a co-sponsor of the legislation, has withdrawn his co-sponsorship. He did not respond to multiple requests for comments as to why he withdrew his name.

Wanggaard said because there isn’t a development agreement in place, it’s difficult for the DNR to accurately assess the environmental impact of a project.

“The DNR is looking at this pretty broadly,” Wanggaard said. “You want them to identify anything that they think might be an issue.”

With this DNR report, area legislators are looking into other options to make the legislation more environmentally friendly.

The current legislation would allow the development of about 30 to 35 acres of land along the lake. Mason said the legislation could be adjusted to lower the amount of land that could be affected.

“What we’re going to need to do is narrow the scope of the bill to be more precise to just the land that would include the proposed convention center,” Mason said. “So we’ve been in communication with local legislators to narrow the scope of the bill, and it’s our belief and hope that the DNR will look at it differently.”

Vote could happen in spring

While the legislation on this potential development continues to evolve, it could affect the timeline for beginning construction.

Mason said he is confident the legislation could be passed this fall but is aware the bill might get bumped to the spring session.

“To be clear, we need the legislation for the project to move forward,” Mason said. “We were clear with the legislators and the DNR about that requirement from the outset ... that’s why we’re working so hard on a bipartisan solution that we believe that everybody can get behind.”

Wanggaard said he hopes the bill gets approved this fall, but he is unsure of the actual Senate floor session schedule.

“From what we’re being told, is we’re looking at two days of session time on the floor (this fall),” Wanggaard said.

In the Assembly, it doesn’t seem like things are looking much better for the project.

“Right now, my personal opinion is that I don’t foresee the support to move it through our house until we resolve some of the discrepancies between what we intended to do with the legislation and where the DNR has issued their report from,” Wittke said. “We realize in both houses, there will be limited floor sessions here in the fall … I know there are many other bills already that are stacked up looking for the same thing.”

“We spent a fair bit of time talking to the DNR before the bill was introduced, so yeah, there was definitely some surprises with their analysis of the bill considering how much time we spent talking to them.” Racine Mayor Cory Mason

“We spent a fair bit of time talking to the DNR before the bill was introduced, so yeah, there was definitely some surprises with their analysis of the bill considering how much time we spent talking to them."

Racine Mayor Cory Mason

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