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Candidate: Vicki Markussen

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— How long have you lived in La Crosse? 

I moved here in 1995 when I began my professional careers as a TV reporter. I had aspirations to move on to larger markets to advance that career. Instead, I fell in love with the City and the man who’s been my husband, Dan, for now twenty years. We continue to raise three boys who attend middle and high school and Western Technical College in La Crosse.

— What in your education, work and life history makes you suited for the job as La Crosse’s mayor?

I bring experience leading in the community with the compassion of someone whose family struggled to put food on the table. I was aware getting free lunches at school, parents paying with food stamps, my mom sewing my prom dress, or warming a house with one wood stove and a butane heater was not the norm. When my dad died of cancer my freshman year, it was my strong willed mother, the encouragement of teachers, scholarships and grants that helped me get a full ride to UW-Madison. It changed my life. I want every family to have an opportunity toward a better life.

I have listened to many voices in the community and used that input to make decisions – many of them tough — and to lead people down a path where they thrive. I am proud of earning respect with those I work with, having actively participated in the Waking up White initiative, Diversity Council, Fair Housing, the arts community, developed women leadership opportunities, represented the City on Sister Cities trips to Epinal and Friedberg, volunteered along many of you in  nonprofits in our community and globally, and for continued to guide our local, small businesses as they struggle to keep our friends and neighbors employed.

TV reporting / journalism taught me how to take complex issues and communicate them effectively. My startup company Engage Greater La Crosse tells the stories of our community with calls to action to engage. As mayor we must take the work of City Hall out to the people, not require them to find agendas and understand proceedings. Transparency creates trust and engagement.

The Builders Association taught me how to unite direct competitors for greater good. This is what’s required at City Hall — to rise above individual agendas. These 400 contractors taught me the opportunities and challenges in providing housing. This great group of volunteers taught me how to speak for our community in Madison and Washington DC, how to develop budgets, build reserves, raise money, and fund buildings.

I bring the ability to blur borders to develop win-wins into the Mayor’s role. I worked across three state borders and 13-counties while at the 7 Rivers Alliance. The collaborative group engaged the universities/colleges with businesses to develop the workforce of the future and to create opportunities to thrive..

I am very proud of my leadership at the Chamber of Commerce when COVID closed businesses. I understand the needs of local, small companies. This knowledge is needed to rebuild. My passion for encouraging women in leadership in our community thrived at the Chamber. I connected community diversity issues to businesses. We hired a liaison to help people relocating connect to call this area home.  As mayor, I will continue the conversations we took to Madison and Washington D.C. of unfair floodplain requirements, keeping people with disabilities in the workforce, and childcare shortages.

Throughout all of this, I have volunteered alongside many of you. From Habitat for Humanity, Big Brothers Big Sisters, mission trips to Nicaragua and Puerto-Rico post-hurricane, serving on boards for the La Crosse Symphony Orchestra, Fair Housing Partnership, and the Women’s Fund, I have learned about the needs in our community and beyond. My joy in leading is in serving people.

I bring my identified strengths of problem solving, input, and future thinking to the position, knowing they are essential to a strong mayor.

— A lot of help is needed due to the pandemic. Who would you prioritize gets that help and how would you, as mayor, go about providing it?

At the heart of the pandemic is one thing – local, already-vulnerable people. Our friends and neighbors are struggling. Large stores like home improvement, furniture, box stores and groceries are thriving. Meanwhile the businesses that make up our quality of life — our food and beverage, hotels, and entertainment — are devastated. Great Rivers United Way identified that 50% of households in La Crosse were one tragedy away from hard times. COVID was that tragedy. I heard the story of a restaurant worker on the northside earning $100 a week. That’s not enough to pay rent, let alone food or car payments. Students in those jobs face not being able to afford tuition.

Businesses need one thing to survive — people spending money locally again. Safely getting kids back in school, people back into jobs, and life to resume is the only solution. In La Crosse County alone, food and beverage and hotels lost $70 million through November of 2020. It went to online sales, which increased $60 million in this county. It’s time to reclaim that money for our local businesses. It will happen. We’ll stop streaming movies. Events will start up again. We’ll return to restaurants.

The top priority is developing a safe ramp-up plan to get people safely back into our community, events occurring again, and conventions and tourists coming. This sounds scary now, which is exactly why a plan to do so safely and proactively is needed. Our most vulnerable need their livelihoods restored. Each of us has the power to help. We need the Mayor to unite our community to safely get money flowing again in our community.  

— What are the most important housing/rental issues in the city, and how does the mayor go about handling those?

La Crosse has an aging population and aging homes. If we think of housing as a pathway, we must maximize federal funding to demolish low-quality housing and build housing our workforce can afford.

The City has too many homes valued at under $120,000. This challenge is an opportunity to create entry-level home ownership opportunities. We create movement by working with senior living developers so those wanting assisted living can stay in our community. As those homes go up for sale, remodeling and updating comes with this change of ownership. It’s proven that when a home or business on a block improves, those around it are more likely to make enhancements.

The City must work with FEMA to remove 100-year floodplain restrictions from homes and businesses. This is greatly suppressing our ability to improve our homes and city. Having taken this very issue to Washington DC with the Chamber, we heard other Midwest states sharing this same concern and the politics behind this issue – that insurance rates will rise for southern and east-coast states if the Midwest is pulled out of the insurance pool. That is not our problem and burden to bear. Some homes can be more easily removed from the floodplain designation than others. I will continue that federal conversation with FEMA, our state, and federal representatives. We must break through the politics.

Lastly, we must retain and attract our middle class by adding housing they want. When they find a desirable home, our property taxes deter them. We must tell our story. We are more than a property tax number. UW-Extension’s research on the cost of living in our surrounding communities paints a different picture supporting our story. La Crosse must do a better job of selling ourselves and working with realtors to tell this story.

I will say that I am disappointed with the cuts to the City’s Planning Department. This department directly assists our business community and our homeowners. Now is the time to lean into these opportunities to build long-term tax base for La Crosse and spread the work that needs to be done across a wider base.

— Transportation and parking get a lot of attention from the public. What do you see as La Crosse’s most important issues surrounding transportation/parking and how would you address them as mayor? 

The top complaint I hear is the quality of our roads. The state gives the city funding to maintain highways through our community (Highway 16/La Crosse Street, Gillette/West Avenue, Rose Street/3rd/4th, “The Pike” over to La Crescent, and Mormon Coulee). We all look forward to the complete reconstruction of La Crosse Street. It can’t come soon enough. Thankfully, the state is paying for that repair, allowing us to focus on the roads for which we are responsible.

I agree with the City’s plan to repair at least six miles of roads a year. Repairs are a never-ending cycle. Ensuring higher traffic roads get prioritized is vital. We cannot ignore friendlier streets for biking and walkability. These are often on side streets to main roads. Creating safe walking routes to school and work must occur as we develop these streets.

As a side note, we must be aware that traffic patterns began changing at least five years ago. North-south traffic is now equal. The pandemic may have permanently disrupted where people are working. Every conversation around transportation and traffic may need updating.

Parking is a balance between the needs of workers and those we want patronizing nearby businesses. Right now, businesses need all barriers removed to helping them thrive. People also don’t need added financial burdens through unnecessary ticketing. The city must be flexible now. I am hearing some jobs may remain as remote working. We can continue conversations when we know better what the future holds.

— If elected mayor, what would be your top three priorities for the city and why?

1. We must return to spending money locally to get our friends and neighbors back into jobs. Our economy and returning our high quality of life is my top concern.

2. We can and must keep property taxes even by better developing our housing, storefronts, and land. Doing so spreads the cost of the city out across a wider base. Valley View Mall is a prime example of the City needing to help property owners maximize use of their space. In 2018, the mall paid the City $1.4 million in property taxes. In 2021, it will pay in $605,310. This single property represents a loss of $324,000 to La Crosse Schools (yes, businesses pay school taxes) and $49,000 to Western Technical College. We must accelerate the development of the Mobile Oil site (River Point District). We’ve been waiting 25 years to develop this 66 acres.

3. Safety: Chronic homelessness and safety issues will remain if we don’t work with partners to address mental health and addiction issues. The City cannot solve these alone. The County and the Homeless Coalition are leading these efforts. The City can assist as a partner.