From our point of view, the state Department of Natural Resources is ignoring bipartisan support for a proposed Downtown Racine convention center for the sake of a parking lot.
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. 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.
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.”
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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.”
As state Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, correctly put it, no one is going to sit in the parking lot directly south of Festival Hall to enjoy Lake Michigan. This hypothetical person is far more likely to make use of Christopher Columbus Causeway or Pershing Park, near Festival Hall to the north and south, respectively.
There’s a significant opportunity here. The massive development of a new hotel with a well-established brand name, incorporated into a convention center, would be a substantial economic boost for the City of Racine. It has the potential to kick-start economic development Downtown. While there is obvious private benefit to this proposal, it also has the potential to be for the betterment of the public.
We want this project to move forward. The Legislature must find a solution to make it happen.