County commissioners, mayor meet about convention center: Points of conflict come into sharper focus

Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, attended Wednesday’s regular meeting of the Monroe County three-member board of commissioners to talk about how to move the convention center expansion project forward. He acted on an invitation made by commissioners after a meeting of county and city officials on Tuesday a week ago.

The project has made no progress on the preliminary site plan recommendation made by a nine-member steering committee in late May.

Wednesday’s meeting did not produce any consensus for a path towards a design and construction phase of the project. Some of the points of disagreement between the mayor and the commissioners did come into sharper focus.

Among the points of conflict is the make-up of a seven-member capital improvement board (CIB) that might be formed to govern the project. It’s the county commissioners who have the statutory authority to create a CIB. And it’s the commissioners who decide which governmental units in the county make appointments.

Before the meeting, in a letter sent on Oct. 31, commissioners suggested either a 4–3 or a 3-4 appointment split, between the city and the commissioners. At Wednesday’s meeting, Hamilton suggested either a 6–1 or a 5–2 split, in favor of the city. Commissioners appear to be considering the possibility that a county commissioner could serve on the CIB.

The two sides disagree about how to analyze their contributions of food and beverage tax, innkeeper’s tax, and land, for the purpose of allocating CIB appointments.

On Wednesday, Hamilton didn’t offer a specific response to an idea that commissioners floated in their Oct. 31 letter: Whichever side gets the four appointments would have to make the appointments of the three non-Democrats, which the partisan requirements of the CIB enabling statute would indicate. It’s something that could be talked about, Hamilton said, but maybe not at that meeting.

Hamilton said at Wednesday’s meeting that a CIB is one of three possible options. The other two are a building corporation and a government-sponsored 501(c)(3).

If it’s a CIB that is pursued, then a  point of disagreement is how long it will take to create it. President of the board of commissioners, Julie Thomas, said the board was prepared to move forward with the requisite ordinance, to ask the county council for seed money, concluding: “We could be moving forward in as little as a week.”

Months is how long Hamilton thinks it will take. Needing some resolution, Hamilton said, are several issues, like the CIB membership question, which real estate gets transferred to the CIB and when, as well as operational budgets. “It’s going it will be at least months to get [a CIB] operational,” Hamilton said.

A week is also the amount of time that Thomas estimated as necessary for the commission’s possible consideration of a vote—after entertaining public commentary—on the site plan for the expansion project. The steering committee’s recommendation, which it made on May 23, was for a northward expansion. Commissioners favor an eastward expansion.

The appropriate site plan—northward or eastward expansion from the current location at College Avenue and 3rd Street—got a fair amount of attention at Wednesday’s meeting. The conversation with Hamilton was listed first on the agenda under new business. Thomas started that agenda item by outlining a case for the eastward expansion.

Highlights of the case for eastern expansion included the slightly larger area available to the east, and the possibility of even greater expansion 30 years from now, if the need arises. It would be possible to have an attached parking facility, on the eastward expansion scenario, Thomas said.

The length of the bridge from the existing facility to an eastward expansion would be about the same as to a northward expansion, Thomas said. Access for visitors off College Avenue and Walnut Street would be better, with the benefit that it would take the traffic load off 4th Street, Thomas said. And if the replacement parking garage at 4th Street is supposed to be overflow parking for the convention center, then it would be closer if the expansion goes to the east.

While the choice of site plan is an obvious point of conflict, part of the uncertainty is the question of who decides the site plan. At Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners indicated they’d be willing to let the site plan decision be made by the CIB, once it is created.

Hamilton said he thinks the nine-member steering committee would be a good venue to revisit question of northward versus eastward expansion. Under the MOU establishing the steering committee, the procedure for selecting the project’s architect required a majority agreement of the four elected officials on the committee—mayor, city councilmember, county councilor, county commissioner. Hamilton suggested at Wednesday’s meeting that a similar approach could be taken on the site plan question.

The county takes the view that the scope of the existing MOU doesn’t cover additional work. Sorting out how a site plan decision would work—the action of governmental bodies based on recommendations made by the committee—would presumably require working through a new MOU between the mayor and the commissioners. The city says that on Aug. 9 it sent a proposed draft MOU for continuing the steering committee’s work, to which the commissioners have not responded.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Thomas said she did not want to put energy into an MOU to extend the scope of the steering committee’s work, because the committee would be able only to recommend, not decide anything.

The idea that the commissioners could in the next week or two entertain public commentary and then vote to approve the northward expansion site plan seemed like it could be analyzed as a kind of positive point of Wednesday’s meeting. After the meeting, Hamilton told The Beacon he thought such a vote would be a good step forward.

Thomas told The Beacon after the meeting that even if a site plan were agreed by the commissioners, the city council, the county council and the mayor, that would not help the project go forward. What’s needed is the creation of a CIB, she said, something that commissioners have been pushing for since they released the July 24 public memo to other elected officials.

The county council has a presentation scheduled for its regular meeting on Nov. 12. A tentative date of Nov. 21 has been set of the third meeting of 20 elected officials from the city and the county to discuss the convention center expansion.