Voters pass sales tax to renovate Packers' stadium

Tuesday, September 12th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) _ Voters approved a half-percent sales tax to help the Green Bay Packers renovate Lambeau Field, clearing the way for the team to start construction in January.

On Tuesday night, 48,788 voters, or 53 percent, supported the half-percent sales tax in Brown County, according to unofficial final results. There were 42,580 votes against it.

The county will start collecting the tax Nov. 1, Packers President Bob Harlan said.

``We are going to have the finest stadium in the NFL,'' Harlan said at the Stadium View Sports Bar and Grill in Green Bay, where 400 team supporters gathered Tuesday night.

``America's team still resides in Green Bay, Wis.''

Long before the final votes were counted, a cheer went up at the Stadium View Sports Bar when WBAY televised its exit poll, which projected the sales tax would pass.

``We have Vince Lombardi looking over us,'' said Larry Primeau, known as ``Packalope'' for the antler-adorned helmet he wears.

Voters also decided whether money generated by the tax in excess of that needed for the renovation should go toward county services. The unofficial final tally had 50,317, or 55 percent, votes against that idea, and 40,714 for it.

By passing the first question and rejecting the second, voters decided the additional tax revenue will be used to retire the Lambeau Field debt years earlier.

The sales-tax vote had been projected as a close one, pitting voters' love of the Packers against their pocketbooks.

Officials had predicted the turnout would be high, with perhaps 80 percent of the county's more than 160,000 eligible voters going to the polls. By Monday, some 2,100 people had cast absentee ballots in Green Bay, more than the number of absentee votes in the presidential election in November 1996, officials said.

Tom Tomashek of Ashwaubenon said he supported the tax because he wants his children and grandchildren to watch the Packers play at Lambeau Field.

``Truthfully, without the Packers, this would be like a ghost town,'' he said. ``You might as well board up all the hotel rooms.''

The Packers announced the $295 million renovation in January, saying it would expand the 43-year-old stadium's capacity to 71,100 seats by adding 10,000 more, modernize the stadium with more bathrooms and concessions stands and add a mall-like atrium for the Packers Hall of Fame, Packer Pro Shop, stadium club and other amenities.

The Packers hope to finish the project in 2003 so the stadium could be used year-round and provide at least a 25-year fix to the team's growing financial worries.

Gov. Tommy Thompson said the Legislature now should approve $9 million for infrastructure improvements such as roads and utilities for the project.

``It is the start of a new day for the Green Bay Packers franchise,'' he said.

The Packers, founded in 1919, argued Lambeau Field was crumbling and needed to be modernized. The team said it desperately needed to generate more revenue from the stadium to remain financially competitive in the NFL and be able to afford escalating players salaries.

Critics countered that taxpayers' money should not be used to finance a private business, and they argued the project was too lavish and may not accomplish what the Packers wanted.

``I really don't think they presented a financial picture that warrants Brown County residents to pay so much for the stadium,'' said Jim Frink of the Brown County Taxpayers Association.

Many critics said there were other ways to finance the improvements, including collecting taxes from more than just one county, and perhaps selling naming rights to Lambeau Field for up to $120 million.

The referendum was the first public vote on the venerable stadium since April 1956, when Green Bay voters, by a 2-to-1 margin, approved bonds to build it for $960,000. ___