Food and beverage tax group OK with $500K for limestone heritage tourism project, but agnostic on location

At Tuesday afternoon’s meeting of the food and beverage tax advisory commission, Monroe County’s board of commissioners got approval from the food and beverage tax group to spend up to a half million dollars on a limestone heritage project. The location of the tourism destination has not yet been determined.

From February 2018, when the tax started getting collected, through July 2018, Bloomington’s portion of the food and beverage tax has come to just under $4 million. For the same period, the county’s share is $522,800.

The limestone heritage project came under sharper focus and scrutiny recently when it was proposed for inclusion in the list of expenditures for the county’s annual general obligation bonds. The issuance of the bonds was approved on Oct. 22, for $3.3 million worth of projects, including land acquisition for the limestone heritage project.

Some geographic uncertainty was part of the food and beverage tax discussion on Tuesday, just as it was on the night of the vote on the bond issuance a week ago. The land that’s been targeted is just to the northwest of the I-69/SR-46 interchange. A week ago, the county council put off a vote on the purchase of that property.

The uncertainty last week was due to a couple of issues, one being that the two appraisals for the property, which has been the target of acquisition for at least a few months, had not yet been returned. At its Oct. 16 meeting, the board of commissioners approved a $2,500 contract with Vet Environmental for a review of environmental documents associated with the property.

Another factor causing some uncertainty was the pitch, made at last week’s county council meeting, for a possible alternative site for the development of a limestone tourism destination. Randy Cassady, who owns the Woolery Stone Mill property, told the council he believed that the owners of some quarry property near the Woolery Mill are willing to sell the land to the county.

Cassady and his wife, Tamby Wikle-Cassady, also appeared in front of the food and beverage tax group on Tuesday to urge further consideration of alternate sites. “I appreciate that you’re willing to discuss additional properties, as well as the one that has been under consideration,” Wikle-Cassady said.

Randy Cassady said he’d defer to the experts about the planning for an attractive tourist destination, but pointed out that a master plan had been developed for the area in the south part of town—that’s closer to where the Woolery Mill is located. Rather than focussing on one particular land parcel, he said, Cassady wanted planners to develop the best attraction possible.

The idea that the limestone heritage site should be treated as a tourist attraction is built into food and beverage tax funding. The state statute that enables Monroe County to enact the tax levy says the funds “may be used only to finance, refinance, construct, operate, or maintain a convention center, a conference center, or related tourism or economic development projects.”

A decision on the location of the proposed project was something that food and beverage tax advisory commissioners wanted to keep at arm’s length.

Under the statute, Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, sits on the food and beverage tax group. Hamilton said decisions about location, scale and scope would be made would be at county commissioner meetings. Those meetings would include public input, Hamilton said, where issues like location could be discussed. As for the food and beverage group, Hamilton said, “We won’t be saying, ‘North is better than south, or east is better than west’—that will go to the county as you evaluate all of this.”

County commissioners wanted the food and beverage group to provide a letter that could be used to support a couple of grants for which the county is applying. County councilor, Shelli Yoder, said the letter should be clear that the tax group was saying that a limestone tourism site would be an appropriate use of the food and beverage tax, without endorsing any particular location. Application is being made for grants from the Community Foundation and the Regional Opportunities Initiative. The grants, if awarded, would amount to $300,000 in funding.

At Tuesday’s meeting, food and beverage tax advisory commission member Susan Bright expressed some reservations about not knowing the proposed total cost of the project. Based on the $1 million earmarked for land acquisition in the general obligation bond, the $300,000 worth of grant funding, and the $500,000 worth of food and beverage taxes, the county is looking to spend at least $1.8 million on the tourist attraction.

The reason county commissioners were in front for the food and beverage tax group is found in the state statute: “The county or city legislative body may not adopt any ordinance or resolution requiring the expenditure of food and beverage tax collected under this chapter without the approval, in writing, of a majority of the members of the advisory commission.”

The local ordinance that implements the enabling statute includes a requirement that was not met earlier this year, which is that the food and beverage advisory group “is to make a formal annual report to the County Council in February of all projects on which the Food and Beverage Tax has been spent or is planned to be spent.” The “has been spent” wording was moot as of February of this year, leaving the “planned to be spent” unaddressed.

So the group discussed on Tuesday how to approach meeting the February reporting requirement for 2019 and 2020. It looks like the food and beverage tax group will use its remaining meeting this year to work on compiling a comprehensive report covering both years for February 2020.