Opinion: Convention center expansion should be designed from ground up as Net Zero facility

“Climate Action Now” banner hung at city hall on Dec. 6, 2019. A meeting between county and city officials about the convention center expansion was taking place at the same time at the climate strike sit-in. (Dave Askins/Beacon)

On Wednesday, Bloomington’s city council is set to approve an appropriation ordinance for around $6 million of food and beverage tax money. It’s for an architect to design the expansion of the convention center at College Avenue and 3rd Street.

The ordinance will likely be amended at Wednesday’s meeting to include some language that is meant to patch over more than six months of acrimony between Bloomington and Monroe County government officials over the control of the project.

The amendment would constrain the expenditure of money until a design contract can be assigned to the yet-to-be-formed governance entity—either a capital improvement board or a 501(c)(3)—that will direct and control the project.

The idea of such an amendment emerged over the last week or so, and was solidified on Friday at a joint meeting of the county council and the county’s board of commissioners. The meeting was attended by the deputy mayor and a member of the city council. The mood in the room at the county courthouse on Friday afternoon was not exactly celebratory, but was more positive than it has been in over six months.

The sense of satisfaction with the day’s work on Friday afternoon was tempered by an understanding on all sides of the significant amount of work that is still yet to be done on hashing out remaining differences on the governance question.

With all that as background, I think Wednesday’s amendment to the appropriation ordinance on governance should be joined by another amendment, which would insert the following language:

SECTION X: Funds appropriated by this ordinance shall not be expended for any design contract that does not include a requirement that the new facility described in the architects’s design has Net Zero carbon emissions.

I’m suggesting that amendment in the spirit of a remark made by county commissioner Julie Thomas, when she said on Friday afternoon, about an agreement on governance of the convention center project, “I don’t need a deadline.” What she needed, she said, was for the next specific step to be clear.

Various deadlines for reducing carbon emissions have been set forth by the city of Bloomington, scientists across the world, and local climate strike activists.

In fact, at the same time that county and city officials were reconciling some differences over the control of the $59-million construction project, climate strike activists a couple of blocks away at city hall were staging a sit-in, which included some deadlines for reducing carbon emissions.

One of those deadlines presented on Friday by local activists is a 50-percent reduction by 2027 and Net Zero carbon emissions by 2040. The city’s Sustainability Action Plan targets an 11-percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2023 measured from a 2016 estimate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said in October 2018 that net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide would by 2030 need to fall about 45 percent from 2010 levels, reaching Net Zero around 2050, to prevent more than a 1.5 C global temperature increase.

About all those deadlines, I say: Yes, and what about next Wednesday?

Next Wednesday (Dec. 11) is exactly the right time for the city council to make a decision to require that new 30,000-square foot convention center exhibit hall be designed as a Net Zero carbon emissions facility. If it’s not designed that way, it’s not going to be built that way.

If our local government cannot manage to achieve a Net Zero goal for even this one new building—which is totally under our control—what possible hope can we have for the rest of the planet?

I can imagine that some climate change activists might take the position that a convention center by its nature undermines efforts to reduce carbon emissions. That’s because much of the success of the facility will rely on conventioneers traveling long distances to reach Bloomington.

From my perspective, building an expanded convention center is a policy choice that has already been made. If the considerable acrimony between the city and the county could not derail the project—and based on Friday’s meeting, I think the worst of the rancor might be past—then I don’t think anything is going to stop it.

As long as it’s going to be built, why not take something that might be terrible, and make it a little less terrible?

And what better way to spread the word about how a community can take a concrete step towards Net Zero emissions: Every year send thousands of conventioneers home with the memory of a fantastic Net Zero building in Bloomington.

That’s a possibility that could move forward next Wednesday with action by Bloomington’s city council.