The Onalaska Common Council unanimously voted to return the National Scenic Byways grant dollars intended for the Great River Cultural and Tourism Center (GRCTC).

In 2006 and 2008, the City of Onalaska received National Scenic Byways grants totaling $1.241 million for the design and construction of the GRCTC.

In a Friday afternoon news release, the city planning and zoning department announced that “changing conditions in the area and concerns regarding constraints placed on the project by the terms of the grant” caused the Common Council to vote to return the grant.

The project was envisioned as a regional tourist destination that would drive redevelopment of Onalaska’s waterfront and enhance the appeal of Onalaska as a tourist and vacation destination, the planning department stated in the news release. 

The planning department said it was not an easy decision for the Common Council to make and the following factors played into the decision to return the money:

  • The building is not believed to be the regional destination and economic driver of the Highway 35 and downtown district as was initially planned and expected.  Changing market and economic conditions have caused developers to be slower to invest which raised concerns about the return on investment for the City.
  • The 2008 Waterfront Master Plan recommended that Phase I of the GRCTC be 50,000 square feet. Current plans are for an 8,000 square foot building with approximately 1,000 square feet of exhibit/interpretive area, 920 square feet of multi-purpose/special exhibit area, and approximately 500 square feet for welcome information and a gift shop.  The tourism offices and conference room are planned in the lower level, along with bathrooms accessible to users of the Great River State Trail.
  • Partnerships that were once envisioned to be part of the project have not evolved.  Currently the City is solely responsible for the development, operation, and success of the GRCTC.  Use limitations placed on the structure from grant requirements are a concern.  Because the exhibit area is so small, the City is concerned about the GRCTC’s long-term success and would like the option to incorporate other uses such as a City Parks and Recreation Department component which could rent canoes and conduct guided river tours which would increase the facilities potential for profitability. Other uses of available space in the GRCTC would be additional shops and office space. These additional uses of the GRCTC would not be possible under the conditions of the grant.

The planning department said the city is moving forward on developing the Highway 35 and downtown area, waterfront, the creation of a tourism/welcome center and a trailhead to serve the Great River State Trail. The past planning that went into the GRCTC will be used on these continued goals and efforts, the planning department stated.