Monroe County moves ahead on purchase of quarry land for tourism destination

Purchase agreements for land with several quarry holes, at the northwest corner of the interchange of SR-46 and I-69, were approved by county commissioners at their regular Wednesday meeting.

The purpose of the land acquisition is to establish the location as a kind of outdoor limestone museum that celebrates Monroe County’s heritage of high quality limestone, and the role the limestone industry has played in local history.

About the purchase agreements, with two different landowners, president of the board of commissioners Julie Thomas said, “This is really something that should be in the hands of Monroe County government. And I really look forward to seeing where we go with this next, and what we can make out of this.”

For the 14.89-acre property owned by Kathy Francis, the purchase agreement is for $175,000. For the 14.57-acre property owned by the Yates Trust, the agreement is for $195,000. The money is coming from a 2019 general obligation (GO) bond.

The seven-member county council, the county’s fiscal body, still needs to approve the purchase agreements, even though the money is already approved. That’s because the expenditure involves land acquisition.

A third property, just to the south, and owned by Ledge Wall Quarry, LLC, is still in the mix as a possible acquisition by Monroe County, Thomas told The B Square on Thursday.

The Ledge Wall Quarry real estate, which extends along the edge of SR-46, partly surrounds property owned by CBS. The CBS land is home to Bennett Stone Quarry, a site that on Tuesday this week was officially taken off the Environmental Protections Agency’s Superfund National Priorities List.

The property was on the EPA’s Superfund list due to contamination from polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) arising from electrical capacitors that were dumped at the site during the 1960s and 1970s.

The property was taken off the list, according to the EPA’s news release, because: “EPA has determined that cleanups…are completed and no further action is required other than continued operation and maintenance, monitoring, and five-year reviews”.

On the issue of PCBs, county commissioners got an preliminary oral presentation at their Aug. 25 meeting from Diane Henshel, who is an Indiana University professor at the O’Neill School of public and environmental affairs. She is described in her bio as an “expert in risk assessment and sub-lethal health effects of environmental pollutants.”

Henshel was contracted for $8,000 to provide the county a risk assessment report for the quarry center land, which is to include a review of environmental documents and consideration of chemical and other safety risks that are potentially associated with the property.

Henshel told commissioners that there are still PCBs in the bedrock of the area and it’s not possible to get rid of them—because the karst limestone making up the bedrock is full of crevices. The PCBs continue to wash out of the bedrock during flooding and heavy rains, Henshel said.

Henshel noted that the FEMA 100-year floodplain cuts across the property that the county is looking to acquire. She reported that during a site visit after a rain this spring, “We could explicitly smell PCBs.”

The proposed quarry center contemplates having an onsite employee who would potentially be exposed to PCBs for longer periods of time than visitors would be. Henshel told commissioners, “As far as a park employee…, the calculations are still within reasonable for exposure to the PCBs.” She added, “But we still think it would be better if the park employee were not pregnant or nursing.”

Wednesday’s action by commissioners on the purchase agreements came too late for the county to take advantage of a $250,000 grant that was awarded in late 2019 by the Regional Opportunities Initiative (ROI),  to support the quarry center project.

The grant was lost, because the county had not yet acquired the land, Thomas told The B Square on Thursday. About ROI, Thomas said, “I don’t blame them one bit. They have been so patient with us throughout this whole process as we got through COVID and other priorities took over.”

The 2019 GO bond that is being used to pay for the parcels involved in Wednesday’s purchase agreements includes enough to cover the roughly $800,000 that the county was prepared to pay for the Ledge Wall property in early 2020.

County commissioners are working with Mike McAfee, executive director of Visit Bloomington, on a possible application for some grant money from the federal Economic Development Agency (EDA), through the American Rescue Fund Act. McAfee described the EDA’s competitive tourism grants to commissioners at their Sept. 1 meeting.

Other sources of funding for the quarry center include the county’s share of the food and beverage tax (FBT). Since early 2018, the 1-percent tax has been paid by purchasers of all prepared food and beverages in the county. The county’s share of the FBT works out to around 10 percent of the total. The other 90 percent goes to the city of Bloomington. Shares are based on the locations of the establishments where patrons pay the tax.

Revenues from the FBT took a hit from the COVID-19 pandemic, but have rebounded now to their pre-pandemic levels. In fall 2019, the food and beverage tax advisory commission (FABTAC) approved the use of up to $500,000 in FBT revenue on the quarry center project.

The FBT nets around $35,000 a month for the county. About $400,000 of the county’s accumulation of FBT revenues was granted last year to businesses as pandemic relief.