Public’s interest in convention center expansion high as city, county councils set to meet Oct. 29

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Aerial view of area around the existing convention center from Monroe County’s GIS system’s  Pictometry tool.

On Sept. 16, members of Bloomington’s common council, Monroe County’s council, the Monroe County’s board of commissioners and the mayor of Bloomington met to discuss how to move ahead with a planned expansion of the county convention center.

That meeting concluded with a consensus that the two councils—city and county—would sort out the next meeting on the topic.

By the end of last week, that meeting was finally set for Oct. 29 at 6:30 p.m. in the Nat U. Hill room of the county courthouse.

The public’s interest in the convention center expansion was evident at Wednesday’s District 3 candidate forum. Residents of the Bell Trace senior living center wanted to hear the thoughts of all the candidates on the expansion.

Nick Kappas said, “My viewpoint is that if it’s going to bring economic value to Bloomington, that’s a positive thing, but how we go about it and how we maintain the relationship [between the city and the county] is going to be extremely important.”

Marty Spechler said, “I am for the convention center. We have the money. And I think it will be good for the university and good for restaurants and retail establishments downtown. And I think that [Mayor] John Hamilton has done a good job on leadership on that.”

Ron Smith said, “I’m really for the convention center, too. I sat in on the meeting where the county council and the city council got together … It made a lot of sense and it seemed quite reasonable, and I think the only thing it needs is a little bit of impetus, it needs to get moving forward, … I think right now it’s getting the two sides to agree, to get the city and the county to agree to push forward and go for it.”

One Bell Trace resident wondered why there was any uncertainty about whether the project is going ahead—a new food and beverage tax was approved by the county council and has been collected since February of 2018: “Wait a minute, isn’t it already a done thing, it’s going to go ahead isn’t it?”

Smith was a the podium at the time: “I would say the answer is it’s going ahead, but it’s slowly going ahead.” Smith took advantage of the fact that Mayor John Hamilton had dropped by the forum: “I see John standing back there, let’s get John to answer that question from his perspective.”

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Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, addressed the Wednesday, Oct. 16 District 3 city council candidate forum on the topic of the convention center expansion. (Dave Askins/Beacon)

Hamilton confirmed that the pace of the convention center expansion is not as fast as he’d like: “There are some people in government who are not pushing it as fast—I’m a little worried about it, I would say, but I’m confident ultimately that we will move forward. We have the funding for it, we have the location for it. We just need to get the political will organized between the city and the county.”

President of Bloomington’s city council, Dave Rollo, responded to a query from The Beacon about the focus of the Oct. 29 meeting by naming a few different topics: funding, especially for for the parking garage; the location of the facilities; and the size of the proposed parking structure. Rollo also said the meeting would probably touch on the recommendation of the steering committee made in May, which was for a northward expansion and a 30,000-square-foot expanded facility.

If the city council follows that recommendation, it would mean an appropriation of money for the architects to proceed on a design, Rollo said.

The 2020 budget approved by Bloomington’s city council includes $5 million of appropriations from the food and beverage tax, to be put towards the expansion of the convention center.

On the county council’s side, Geoff McKim told The Beacon he’s identified a few different challenges he thinks could get addressed at the Oct. 29 meeting. One is the question of what entity will own the expanded convention center. One approach, which the county’s board of commissioners has pitched, is to establish a capital improvement board. Another ownership model, which came up at the mid-September joint meeting, is a building corporation.

A second challenge mentioned by McKim is the bonding capacity provided by the food and beverage tax. Bloomington’s presentation at the mid-September joint meeting pegged the capacity somewhere around $42.7 million, just shy of the amount estimated for the project—not including the parking structure.

A 2017 analysis done by the county’s bond council calculated payments based on a $30,000 $30-million project. The goal of those two analyses appears to have been different—calculate the maximum bond capacity versus calculate payments based on as assumed bond amount. But McKim said he sees the contrast between those two analyses as a distraction. He said the goal now should be “to vet the City’s fiscal approach to the project, and accurately assess and manage any risk to the county engendered by the City’s approach.”

A third challenge is the existing debt on the convention center and how it will be covered. A fourth challenge identified by McKim is how the parking structure associated with the convention center will be funded. The convention center’s parking structure is a third structure, separate from the replacement structure for the 4th Street garage and the new garage planned for the Trades District.