Monroe County commission preps for restart to convention center project, maybe before year’s end

At a meeting on Friday , a question from a new member of Monroe County’s convention and visitors commission (CVC) got to the heart of a lingering issue for the Bloomington area local government officials.

“It’s my understanding that we’re looking to evaluate whether this convention center is…at a capacity that it would need to grow. Correct?” asked David Schaum.

Schaum got confirmation he was on the right track about a convention center expansion.

Schaum is the new general manager at Fourwinds Lakeside Inn & Marina on Lake Monroe. Schaum is new not just to the general manager job at Fourwinds. He’s new to the Bloomington area, having moved here from Washington D.C.

That means Schaum has not yet been fully briefed on the political friction between the city and the county governments that has stalled the convention center expansion project for more than two years.

The project has gotten as far as a preliminary assessment of sites, with a preferred site recommended by a task force. The price tag for one proposal was around $44 million, but that’s likely increased a lot, given general inflationary pressures and supply chain issues.

About the idea of evaluating the need for an expansion, CVC chair Mike Campbell, told Schaum at Friday’s CVC meeting, “I think we’re a little past that.” Campbell serves on the CVC as associate director of Indiana Memorial Union.

Executive director of the Monroe County Convention Center, Talisha Coppock, added, “We need to grow!” At Friday’s meeting, 10 lost event bookings were reported—purely due to the limited capacity of the current convention center.

The CVC is now looking at a six-month time-frame to get the expansion project restarted.

At Friday’s meeting, the CVC voted to recommend to the seven-member county council that the 2023 budget put $75,000 of the increased innkeeper’s tax revenue towards bumping up a line item for CVC members to use to support the expansion restart.

The 5-percent innkeeper’s tax has now rebounded to historic highs since the COVID-19 pandemic first hit.

In a Friday afternoon telephone interview with The B Square, Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce president Eric Spoonmore confirmed the importance of the next six months.

Spoonmore told The B Square he has been meeting with county and city officials separately and is optimistic that a six-month time frame is doable. He also thinks it’s essential for the project to show some substantial progress before the end of the year.

Spoonmore has an eye on the state legislature. Earlier this year, state lawmakers mulled the idea of sunsetting food and beverage taxes (FBTs) across Indiana. That legislation passed the senate but the house allowed it to die in committee.

Bloomington’s share of the countywide 1-percent FBT is the planned revenue source for construction of the project.

If the Monroe County convention center expansion got to the point of issuing bonds, that would give the expansion some protection from a potential anti-FBT move by state legislators in their 2023 session.

In early March, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the city and county—Bloomington mayor John Hamilton and the three county commissioners—were at odds over the governance structure of a yet-to-be-established capital improvement board (CIB).

At Friday’s meeting, Schaum was sanguine about the idea of expanding the convention center. At one point, he reacted to the current hesitancy of hoteliers to book anything before Indiana University announces the home football game calendar. “The goal would be that IU would not be the major player in this million-square-foot convention center,” Schaum said.

Schaum appeared to be using the million-square-foot figure in a way that was at least half tongue-in-cheek. That would be 50-times the size of the current 20,000 square foot facility—when the current expansion plans call for something like 60,000 additional square feet.

Coppock laughed, “Yeah, it’s not gonna be a million square feet!”

The current fund balance in the city of Bloomington’s FBT fund is around $10 million. The tax has been accumulating since 2018.

When the county council enacted the FBT for Monroe County—for the specific purpose of expanding the convention center— it was on a 4–3 vote. Given the amount of time that has elapsed since the 2017 vote, the county council is feeling some political pressure to get the convention center restarted or rescind the tax.

In late 2019, some county councilors made noises about killing the FBT, if county commissioners and Bloomington mayor John Hamilton could not make forward progress on the expansion project.

At Friday’s meeting, Peter Iverson, who is the county council’s representative to the CVC, reacted to Schaum’s optimism by saying, “We need to be bullish on the convention center.” He continued, “I think these are conversations that the community wants to have.” Iversen added, “And certainly the county council has been making public statements for the past couple of months on this.”

One of those statements came from county councilor Geoff McKim in mid-June, when the council approved the purchase of some land which has a future as a limestone heritage tourist destination site.

At that time, McKim said about FBT revenue, “Of course, I think the highest priority should be to get the convention center rolling.”

Getting the convention center rolling again will require Bloomington mayor John Hamilton and the three county commissioners—Julie Thomas, Lee Jones, and Penny Githens—to find a way to see eye-to-eye on the project governance.

When The B Square spoke with Spoonmore, who served on the county council before being named as the chamber’s president in late 2021, he said, “I think everybody wants to see the city and the county working together on this.”

Spoonmore continued, “We don’t want to see one of those units saying: I give up, we can’t do it.” He added, “Everybody wants the city and the county to be working together. And time is of the essence. We really do need to get this done this year.”

2 thoughts on “Monroe County commission preps for restart to convention center project, maybe before year’s end

  1. Imagine if the city administration, which pledged its share of the FB tax solely to the convention center expansion, had been escrowing that trevenue for that purpose over the last three years.

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