By TIM CLARK, guest columnist
The Maple Leaf Performing Arts Center (MLPAC) project and the process used to fast-track approval may represent a turning point for the future of the county.
This article is a first in a series that will provide a perspective on our current reality and offer additional options that may contribute to Brown County remaining a desirable place, to live, work, play and visit
To summarize, key points and issues associated with the MLPAC include the following:
- In April 2017, owners of hotels and inns, who are also appointed to the Brown County Convention and Visitors Commission and Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVC/CVB), decide to use the revenue collected from the innkeepers tax to invest in an asset that will promote tourism. The innkeepers tax is a pass-through tax paid by the party renting the overnight accommodations.
- CVC members are appointed by the county commissioners and council. The CVB is a nonprofit organization established to manage tourism-related promotion on behalf of the CVC.
- CVC/CVB members decided on a music venue and performing arts center and also determined the size, location, scope, cost ($12.5 million), and overall governance plan for the facility. Given that this investment is expected to result in overnight stays, their businesses will directly benefit from the investment, and the asset values of their establishments will likely increase.
- Initially, county citizens were told that revenue from the innkeepers tax would be used to pay the principal and interest on the mortgage for the venue. Any profits were to be used for community and county infrastructure priorities. The final terms of the deal are that profits would be used to make the mortgage payment and the revenue from the innkeepers tax would only be used if profits were not sufficient to make the payment.
- A common perception in the county, that was reinforced by the president of the county council, may be that the revenue from the innkeepers tax is “their (CVC) money.” This inaccurate perception may have contributed to a lack of transparency over the years regarding the management and expenditure of these funds. This revenue, per statute, is a county asset. The commissioners and council (elected by citizens) appoint CVC members, who are subordinate to the citizens and their elected officials.
- The approval of a $12.5 million loan using the revenue from the innkeepers tax as collateral was approved by the commissioners on Nov. 15 and the county council on Nov. 20. The commissioners approved another resolution approving the project Dec. 20. In case of default, the venue would become the property of the bank, and per the county council president and the county financial consultant, county taxpayers would not be obligated to assume the liability.
- No public meetings expressly focused on this important project were scheduled by the commissioners or council before their meetings to approve the project. The League of Women Voters of Brown County offered to facilitate a public meeting to address citizen questions, concerns and issues regarding the project. Members of the CVC, the CVB and the informal team working on the Maple Leaf project declined to participate, as did several key elected officials.
- The editor of the only newspaper in the county, the Brown County Democrat, did recuse herself from being the primary reporter because of a conflict of interest: Her husband serves on the CVC. The Democrat welcomed opposing opinions in guest columns and letters to the editor.
A government best practice for determining the optimum investment options for revenue from the innkeepers tax would be identified in a comprehensive plan or an annex to the plan that includes a strategy for tourism. Such a plan has yet to be developed. A good “plan” includes expected outcomes, actions and milestones, and required resources.
To provide the needed objectivity regarding the feasibility of this project, it was initially suggested by the county attorneys that the Brown County Redevelopment Commission (RDC) become involved, which would have helped to ensure a thorough review on the feasibility of the project.
The plan by the RDC was to involve all affected government offices, to include holding several public meetings to solicit input and feedback from the citizenry. The process would have included identifying, quantifying and acknowledging opportunity costs and the risks associated with the project. The outcome may have been the same, but the public may have had more assurance that the government performed their due diligence.
Before the RDC could hold their first public meeting to discuss their plan, they were told by two of the three commissioners at their July meeting that their involvement would no longer be needed. Before the county council approved the project on Nov. 20, a member of the council confirmed that they did not commit funding for an independent feasibility study of the MLPAC.
Renowned inventor and visionary Buckminster Fuller remarked: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
My next article in this series will include two objectives: Identify likely effects of the MLPAC and identify a new model of citizen engagement that can result in outcomes where everyone can benefit, or at least, will not be any worse off in the long term.
Tim Clark of Brown County is a quality improvement practitioner, educator and author who specializes in the public sector. He is a certified quality auditor and holds master’s degrees in strategic studies and public administration. He has volunteered for the past year as a member of the Brown County Redevelopment Commission and has served on the Brown County Schools Strategic Planning Committee since 2016. He can be reached through the newspaper at firstname.lastname@example.org.