95.3 / 88.5 FM Grand Rapids and 95.3 FM Muskegon
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Two Lodging Tax bills designed to help fund Kent County's amphitheater and soccer stadium await Governor Whitmer signature

Acrisure Amphitheater
Truscott Rossman
Progressive AE
Acrisure Amphitheater

In October 2023, two Michigan House Lodging tax bills were introduced that would allow for local and county governments to increase the tax rate on hotel/motel stays. Months have passed, and Governor Gretchen Whitmer has yet to sign off on the measures that would face voter approval. WGVU’s Patrick Center spoke with Josh Lunger. He’s vice president of government affairs with the Grand Rapids Chamber. He tells us he’s optimistic there will be a resolution.

Interview conducted October 27, 2023

Joshua Lunger: One of our top priorities, I think a top priority for a lot of folks is really making sure that we execute on these big projects that Grand Action and other partners like the city and the county. And frankly, a lot of other local groups have been trying to get done and that's this amphitheater and it's a soccer stadium, it's whatever comes next. And with all the private money, you've seen the announcement for Acrisure sponsoring the amphitheater. They're working on the private funding for the soccer stadium and still raising capital there. But with all the private funding, this is a private public partnership. And as this was being moved forward, I think a lot of folks saw how we accomplished the DeVos Place and Van Andel Arena and said, that was a responsible way to do this. And are looking at the hotel/motel excise tax as the best way to back the bonds that would be the public financing component of these transformational projects.

Patrick Center: What makes that the ideal way to raise funds?

Joshua Lunger: We have a history of doing it and doing it well. It's kind of a user fee in a lot of ways, right? Folks are going to come here. They're going to benefit from these world-class amenities and it's proven to work. One is already paid off, the arena, the DeVos Place is, I believe, going to be paid off in the next less than 10 years. And so, we know that it's a proven commodity here, along with our ability to pull off these kinds of projects as a public-private partnership. So, when you look at local options, this is a really good way to do it. What we like about this is what the state authorize, it’s still a local decision. So, if it's a city or a county decision, depending on which bill passes or how they pass, it still has to be approved by those commissions, and then it still has to go before the voters. And so, you're going to have to make the case to people why there's going to be public oversight of this. And I think there's going to be a lot of excitement to get behind this. It's really a pretty simple decision in our mind. And we've had strongest support for not just these projects, for this method of making sure that we can responsibly pass the bonds.

Patrick Center: Both of these projects are on the fast track, right? I mean, Acrisure, we're going to break ground on the amphitheater next year. I spoke with Kara Wood and she said, hey, we want the soccer stadium open and ready to go in 2026. It's a tight window to get it on the ballot and then you've going to have to pass that.

Joshua Lunger: We're doing one step at a time, right? You're right there. They're on the fast track, but when you say that, I mean, I've been impressed by how much collaboration, hard work has to go into pulling off something like this. Grand Action, the city, the county, I mean, elected appointed officials are working hard. Their teams are working hard to. do something that is going to be transformational for our entire region. The economic impact goes well beyond the city, well beyond the county, and we got to get behind it fully. So, this is many hands in the pie, but I'm really excited for it. That being said, the timeline is tight. I mean, we really need Lansing to get these bills through to the governor as soon as possible. Because when you start talking about, okay, well then the commission, whatever commission has to approve it, has to approve it, has to go before the voters. With the tight timelines we're looking at, we really don't have a ton of time to work with, especially when we know the legislature is looking at adjourning fairly early, honestly fairly soon this year still. If we get it passed now, we've got flexibility. Obviously, you've got to have conversations with the elected officials that can make these decisions. They want to talk to their constituents, and then you've got to have time to run a campaign to let people know what's going on. I feel pretty confident that public support would be there. I think there'd be a lot of support for that campaign. But we're kind of tackling it one item at a time. And the first thing that we need to do is get this legislation out of the House through the Senate to the governor. And then we can start talking about the timing of all these other things. You know, the amphitheater's got a lot of the capital it needs to get started. Grand Action knows a lot more about the actual pulling this off than I do. We're just trying to support it in our role. You know, the soccer stadium is a little bit further behind because it's a second project, but this would be a huge way to make sure that they're able to move forward on a faster timeline, which is ideal, again, given that 2026 targeted start date and the important reasons for trying to target that.

Patrick Center: Do you know the difference between the two bills that are being looked at?

Joshua Lunger Yeah, one is authorizing cities of certain sizes to create a 2% city only. So, within the city boundaries, hotel excise tax. The other allows the counties that can authorize it right now. So, it's, I think it's 10. So, forgive me if I'm off by one to have a max of 10% for the five. Kent County would not need that full 5% at this time for these projects. They're estimating that an 8% would be sufficient. And again, as we get to that decision point, you know, we'd have more information. We'd have more details about the, you know, the lead donors and the, what other private capital is being invested to make sure that we're doing the best mix of private and public in this partnership. You know, the county bill raises significant more capital because about half the money that's raised in Kent County comes from outside of the city of Grand Rapids from hotels. And we know there's a benefit. And again, you can go to CAA or you can talk to Grand Action, they have a lot more data than I have at my fingertips right now. But we're supporting both of these bills and whichever way gets something done so we can move forward. I think when people start to learn more about these projects, they rightfully get very excited because it's going to be a generational impact. This is that next leap for West Michigan. And so, if it comes down to like, we have to have one, you know, we have to get something done because this is an important component. I think the county bill is more long-term and it gets more flexibility. But I also am supporting the city effort because if that's what has the ability to get passed, it's also going to help. And so, if both were to pass, which is probably a little bit of a long shot, then you can start to have that conversation about what's the best way to fund these projects and make the best responsible decision. But we need the authority to do it before we can even start talking about, you know, getting into the details of who, what, when, where, why, and how. I guess not how, but about the timing of all those decisions.

Patrick Center: These projects are moving forward regardless. Even if this doesn't happen, somehow, some way, the dollars will be there. Is that the approach?

Joshua Lunger: Well, I mean, that's a question for Grand Action. You know, again, I'm impressed by the complexity of what all the partners in this effort are trying to pull off. I mean, it is hard. They're raising tens of millions of private capital, private investments, and they're getting permits and they're moving off the site. And I mean, the checklist is massive. Pulling off these big projects, it's not like you just get the foregone conclusion it's going to get done. And I think we need to take it seriously that this is a big opportunity for all of us and let's do whatever it takes to get it done. I know the amphitheater is pretty secure. I think if this were to all fall apart, I think you start to worry about how does that impact the timing of construction for the soccer stadium. But again, that's a Grand Action question. That's for those leaders that are really invested in that full time to figure out. I'm just trying to do what our members and our board has said, and that's we think that this hotel/motel excise tax is the best way to get this done, given the track record. And so, we're trying to get that done in the next month to give Grand Action, the city and county, frankly, the ability to consider these options for public financing.

Patrick Center: Josh Langer, Grand Rapids Chamber, thank you so much.

Joshua Lunger: Thank you, Patrick.

Patrick joined WGVU Public Media in December, 2008 after eight years of investigative reporting at Grand Rapids' WOOD-TV8 and three years at WYTV News Channel 33 in Youngstown, Ohio. As News and Public Affairs Director, Patrick manages our daily radio news operation and public interest television programming. An award-winning reporter, Patrick has won multiple Michigan Associated Press Best Reporter/Anchor awards and is a three-time Academy of Television Arts & Sciences EMMY Award winner with 14 nominations.