EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
Expanding horizons for City of Marinette tourism faces a few hills to ascend with termination of a contract between the city and county, but city government and tourism officials remain confident and optimistic.
EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard

Expanding horizons for City of Marinette tourism faces a few hills to ascend with termination of a contract between the city and county, but city government and tourism officials remain confident and optimistic.

MARINETTE — Uncertainty regarding the termination of a marketing and tourism contract between the City of Marinette and Marinette County promulgated throughout the room at the Tuesday’s Marketing Marinette Committee meeting. At year’s end, when the contract expires, county officials have made clear they do not intend to renew it. 

As a result, during the Tuesday’s meeting, when the committee reached item No. 6 on the agenda, discussion of the city’s marketing budget, Committee Chairman Jon Kukuk addressed the room.

“Here is where it is going to get interesting,” he said. “(Expiration of the contract) will mean a loss of revenue for the City of Marinette toward marketing and tourism and that will be a huge hit to the city.” 

Essentially, the remaining funds represent a drop in the bucket compared to funding received when the city and county signed the contract in 2018. The agreement allocated approximately $125,000 to the city for the purpose of marketing and tourism. Following the contract’s expiration, that number drops to $25,000. When it comes to marketing, that amount supports very little, according to City of Marinette Marketing and Tourism Director Melissa Ebsch.

“In larger markets like Chicago, $25,000 can get you a billboard for one month,” Ebsch pointed out. 

In smaller markets like Marinette, even when prudently apportioned, $25,000 still falls far short of annual marketing needs, Ebsch explained. She added such modest funding social media efforts would provide the best return on investment.

Despite the difficult budgetary prospect, Kukuk spoke for all committee members present when he addressed the progress already achieved such as promotion of fishing tournaments and other large city events catering to tourists throughout the year. 

“I think we’ve made great strides and I think we know where we would like to go (in terms of marketing) with the city,” he said. “We haven’t crossed the goal line yet, but we won’t give up.” 

Understanding marketing and tourism impacts

To understand the loss of marketing revenue facing the city, one must recognize how tourism and marketing serve essential functions that maintain and enhances the economic health of a community. 

According to the numbers compiled by the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, in 2018 Marinette County netted $159.7 million directly related to tourist spending. Moreover, in that same year, tourism contributed to $228 million in total business sales and provided $32.7 million in labor income.   

Local business owner and Marketing Marinette Committee member Kim Brooks can attest to the value of tourism on local business in the city and in broader Marinette County. She owns Main Street Antique Mall, located in downtown Marinette. 

“My business is very affected by tourism,” Brooks said. “We see a huge bump in our sales due to tourists visiting town.”

More importantly, Brooks pointed out that the Marketing Marinette mission serves to enhance both the city and the county. She explained that the city and county must continue to make investments on many fronts to avoid economic decline. 

“Regionally, we need to be proactive in making solid investments,” she said. “And tourism is important.”

Without the contract between the county and city, the burden to find alternative funding resources falls to the committee and the City of Marinette. 

According to Kukuk, the city room tax — a tax collected on temporary lodging facilities like hotels and bed and breakfasts – already contributes approximately $300,000 to support marketing and tourism through both direct and indirect ways.  However, the Room Tax Commission delegates the specific allocation of that money. Kukuk said, that currently, about $100,000 goes into the operational costs of the Community REC Center. Another estimated $100,000 goes into the Marinette Travel Wisconsin Welcome Center and related events like the Logging and Heritage Festival. Finally, 30% goes back into the general fund, leaving just $25,000 for the city to spend on marketing and tourism.

Discussing solutions

One potential solution identified by some committee members involved an increase in room tax from Marinette’s current rate of 6% up to 8%, the maximum allowed by Wisconsin statute. According to City of Marinette Treasurer and Finance Director Jackie Miller, such an increase could generate close to $100,000 extra. However, as the Mayor Steve Genisot pointed out, room tax decisions reside with the Room Tax Commission and with any subsequent rate increases, the revenue generated would not be immediately available. 

Another possible solution tossed around at the meeting concerned relinquishing the operation of the Welcome Center. Miller said the Welcome Center costs close to $43,000 to operate, not including the additional $50,000 necessary for the Logging and Heritage Festival. The state provides a $3,000 grant to assist with center costs, but the city foots the remaining amount. 

City of Marinette Alderman and committee member Rick Polzin justified giving up control of the Welcome Center. 

“This committee needs to decide what is best for (the City of Marinette),” Polzin said. “I think it is reasonable for (the city) to say we are not going to operate the Welcome Center because it costs too much. If the county wants to invest in it, then they should.”  

An additional solution underscored by Genisot, accounts for the half-cent sales tax that Marinette County generates from tourism.  This year alone, the mayor said the county will earn about $4 million from that tax.

“We would love to see some of those dollars continue in tourism because that is a big pot of money,” he said. “And I would hope that at some point the county realized the benefit of that (tax) and finds the value in continued funding of (city tourism).”

By the end of the meeting, Brooks offered a cogent, but optimistic description of the situation.

“This is an incredibly complicated issue,” she said. “But this is just a temporary setback. There are a lot people deeply invested in making Marinette County and city successful.”