Real Racine Executive Director, Dave Blank, had a rough night on Monday at Village Hall. After being forced to sit through 3 hours of invoices and permits, the Village Board gave him about 2 minutes to make his case and convince them to continue funding the former Racine County Visitors and Convention Bureau - now called Real Racine.
Considering that Mt. Pleasant’s hotels fund the majority of Real Racine’s annual budget with their coveted room tax - the stakes for his organization were high. Blank used his time to make it clear Real Racine would be grateful for a reduction from 75% to 70% of room tax contributions - as opposed to nothing at all.
Blank had another hour to go as the Village Board convened into closed session to discuss the contract. When they reappeared 60 minutes later, they voted - unanimously - to give Real Racine nothing.
And just like that, the Village Board voted to destabilize the marketing and tourism engine for the entire region - a measure which had been first discussed literally just a few days before in committee. That’s how much time they gave in deciding to gut an organization with whom they have maintained a relationship with for decades.
A bit of background on how these taxes work - and why they go to Real Racine.
Wisconsin law says that if you collect hotel room taxes, a minimum of 70% of taxes collected MUST go towards tourism efforts. The rules are pretty clear - you can’t just collect that money and spend it on random things. Everything gets reported.
This is why it is common to find region or county based tourism bureaus. They pool together funds and create tourism and marketing strategies for the entire area. They also make sure they are spending that money appropriately.
For Racine County, the Visitors and Convention Bureau was able to capitalize on the attractions and nightlife in the city with the shopping and hotels in the villages. This is how regions work. Each has something to offer.
Mt. Pleasant gives Real Racine a lot of money - about $700,000 a year - because they have the majority of hotels. If you combine that with the 25% they don’t fork over to them - an extra million bucks is pretty enticing. But the village can’t just use that money to lower your taxes (as if that would ever happen). They must form their own tourism bureau - you know, like the one they just bailed on.
The village says they want to carve out their own identity - apparently forgetting every single thing they learned in Wingspread seminars on “Resilient Communities” which was designed to teach local officials the importance of learning to work together with neighboring communities. The point is not to create islands.
So, with a decision to effectively crush Real Racine and create their own duplicate tourism bureau just for Mt. Pleasant, Dave DeGroot went in the exact opposite of the direction communities are being encouraged to explore and support - at the expense of the efforts Real Racine makes on behalf of smaller communities in Racine County who can’t contribute as much cash.
A few additional things to think about:
The first time consideration of ending the contract with Real Racine came up was on June 5th in committee. Why wasn’t this ordinance change read in and given time to be discussed and to weigh feedback from the public?
Just 6 months ago, it was announced that these types of items would be given time over multiple meetings for deliberation. That happened once.
The contract between the village and Real Racine said they had to provide 6 months notice to amend or cancel - the village simply mismanaged its time and was forced to make a decision now.
I have to wonder how many hotels and attractions in Mt. Pleasant currently being marketed by Real Racine were given the opportunity to weigh in on this rushed decision? I would guess none. Wouldn’t that seem to be the first thing one might do?
Village officials have long resented the attention Real Racine pays to the City of Racine and have felt neglected. Racine has the majority of attractions and Mt. Pleasant the majority of hotels - there is no argument.
However, if as a village who contributes the majority of funds to a vendor like Real Racine and can’t get that vendor to listen and comply - you need to find something else to do. It’s a failure of leadership, negotiation and follow-through. Dave DeGroot took his marbles and went home and the rest of the community will suffer. It was a selfish and weak decision.
This is not the way mature government works. Mature governments understand their responsibilities to the larger community, to businesses and people, and to the agreements they have made.
It is my hope this contract can be revisited. That grown-ups will come to table who are able to see something bigger and more beneficial to the entire community we are a part of.