La Crosse Common Council grapples with homeless resource center again, defers action

Former Mayo Clinic building sold to Catholic Charities for resource center.
Catholic Charities had hoped to convert this former Mayo Clinic building into a homeless resource center.

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) — The La Crosse Common Council voted 12-1 Thursday night to defer a decision for 30 days on a controversial zoning change request that would permit a homeless resource center in the Washburn Neighborhood.
The vote came after nearly 45 minutes of debate in what council member Christine Kahlow described as a “rabbit hole” over the proposed center at 508 Fifth Avenue South.
“The neighborhood doesn’t want it, and the applicant doesn’t want it,” Kahlow said, referring to the fact that Catholic Charities has withdrawn the request because of neighbors’ opposition.
The discussion mirrored arguments that arose during a Sept. 1 La Crosse Judiciary and Administration Committee meeting, centered on a technical procedural issue of whether not to accept Catholic Charities’ withdrawal or reject it outright.
Not accepting the item would allow Catholic Charities to bring it back in 30 days, while a flat rejection would have forced it to wait a year.
The proposed center would offer access to showers and laundry, as well as resources such as financial education, career coaching, employment opportunities, and other professional services. It would not be an overnight shelter, Catholic Charities officials have said.
Reflecting council members’ frustration at the nuances of the arguments, council member Doug Happel said, “The intentions are good, but it’s amazing the time we have taken when the neighborhood doesn’t want it and the applicant doesn’t want it. It’s so confusing — where are we going?”
Kahlow read a statement from the Downtown Neighborhood Association that basically supported the view of the Washington Neighborhood Association, saying it is “open to a big-picture solution but doesn’t want to revisit” the resource center.
Member Phillip Ostrem, who noted the city’s partnership with Catholic Charities on development issues, said, “I’ve been losing sleep (over this) for days.”
The entire Fifth Avenue corridor is not suitable for homeless individuals, he said, adding, “Making homelessness more comfortable and available will not solve the problem of homelessness.”
Council President Martin Gaul worried that the council might end up taking an action that would prevent Catholic Charities from using the building. The agency bought the building from the Mayo Clinic Health System, which had used it for offices for its financial services staffers.
“The message is sent that we aren’t going to let them use the building for what they (Catholic Charities) intended,” Gaul said.
But not allowing any use, even its original purpose of offices, would send a poor message, he said.
“I appreciate the fact that we’re trying to save neighbors’ stress,” Gaul said, but others supported the resource center.
In another matter, the council approved an amendment to an ordinance governing pedal pubs to be in accord with state law’s definition of alcohol beverages and fermented malt beverages. Also under state law, nobody on a commercial quadricycle is allowed to possess or carry on more than 36 fluid ounces of fermented malt beverages, which the amendment recognized.