On Friday, in a social media post, the Bloomington’s office of the mayor appears to have abandoned any further pursuit of a collaboration with Monroe County government on the expansion of the county’s convention center.
The statement reads, “Despite hoping to reach an agreement on moving the project forward together, these recent negotiations have concluded without a resolution.”
The statement, made on the Facebook page for Bloomington’s office of the mayor, does not mention Bloomington mayor John Hamilton.
The announcement quotes Bloomington public engagement director Mary Catherine Carmichael saying, “We believe that it’s time to shift focus fully to what we can do to follow through on our commitment to use the city’s portion of the food and beverage tax to expand the space available for conventions and other large gatherings in Bloomington.”
Bloomington’s announcement says “a flexible facility that can accommodate larger groups remains an unfulfilled but important economic and cultural asset missing in Bloomington.” Friday’s announcement says the city expects to announce potential next steps in the next 30-45 days.
The city’s announcement was met with expressions of disappointment from key players on the Monroe County board of commissioners, the Monroe County council, and the Bloomington city council, as well as the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce.
President and CEO of the chamber, Eric Spoonmore, wrote in a statement to The B Square: “It is exceedingly frustrating that the city and county administrations remain at impasse on expansion plans for the Monroe Convention Center.”
As a former county councilor through the end of 2021, Spoonmore conducted the shuttle diplomacy between the mayor and the county commissioners that led this year to a late August meeting, attended by city and county officials, in an attempt to restart the project. The joint city-county effort to expand the convention center had stalled just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The starting point for the August meeting was a proposal from the city for the county to transfer real estate assets so that the city could pursue an expansion of the convention center on its own.
Spoonmore’s statement continues: “[T]he Chamber of Commerce implores the county council, county commissioners, and the city council to continue discussions and identify a viable pathway forward in the spirit of intergovernmental partnership.”
Spoonmore’s statement indicates a hope that the mayor will also re-join the conversation: “It is my sincere hope that, in time, all local government partners will again re-engage in these vital discussions and deliver on the promise of working together to construct a state of the art convention center for Bloomington, Monroe County, and our entire region.”
The outcome of the late August meeting was supposed to be a followup meeting. But those at the table in late August were not able to arrive at an agreed-upon time. The mayor’s office set a deadline to get a deal done for this past Wednesday. The deadline was not hit.
In a written statement to The B Square, county councilor Geoff McKim reacted to Friday’s announcement from the city like this: “I am very disappointed that the Hamilton administration decided to pull out of the renewed discussions with the county.”
McKim continued by saying “I had thought that everybody was working in good faith to schedule a follow-up meeting, until I read the administration’s abrupt statement that the administration would refuse to participate in future meetings, based on having missed an arbitrary deadline.” McKim added, “That was a most unwelcome surprise.”
At a recent hearing on the convention and visitors commission’s 2023 budget, McKim expressed his “full-throated support for expanding the convention center and getting it moving this year.”
One of the approaches for joint city-county governance of an expanded convention center was through a capital improvement board (CIB). On Friday, McKim wrote, “I think the proposal for a joint CIB to expand and operate the convention center at least deserved some substantive public discussion.”
McKim continued, “Our responsibility is to the residents, and I don’t think they are well-served by a perpetual city-county impasse. I look forward to hearing more about the administration’s proposal for moving ahead, and will hold off on any additional comments in support or opposition until we hear more details.”
McKim is one of the two county councilors who continue to serve on the seven-member body, and who voted in 2017 as part of the four-person majority to approve the 1-percent food and beverage tax, which is planned to fund the convention center expansion.
In addition to McKim, Cheryl Munson is still serving on the county council, and voted in favor of enacting the food and beverage tax.
In December 2019, when negotiations between the city and the county were foundering, Munson floated the idea that the county council could rescind the food and beverage tax—in order to prod the mayor and the three-member county board of commissioners to put aside differences and find a path forward. She went as far as to prepare the necessary legislation to rescind the tax.
In a telephone interview on Friday, The B Square asked Munson if rescinding the food and beverage tax could again be put on the table to encourage collaboration. Munson said she thinks the county council will have “discussions about what is to be done with the food and beverage tax,” if the city goes forward on its own to build what is called in Friday’s announcement “a flexible facility.”
Munson also pointed to the 2017 Bloomington city council resolution that was used by the Hamilton administration to garner support from county councilors, including herself, to vote to enact the food and beverage tax.
The city council’s 2017 resolution, which encouraged the county council to enact the tax, was explicit about expanding the existing facility: “[T]he City pledges its cooperation as needed in administration and use of the tax proceeds to fund the expansion of the Monroe County Convention Center.”
That’s a narrower use than is allowed under the state law. The state statue would allow Bloomington to construct its own convention center, as opposed to expanding the existing facility:
Sec. 15. Money deposited in the city food and beverage tax receipts fund may be used only to finance, refinance, construct, operate, or maintain a convention center, a conference center, or related tourism or economic development projects.
But Munson said that the idea in the city council’s 2017 resolution about a city-county collaboration, to expand the existing facility, was “pivotal” in her thinking, when she voted to support enactment of the food and beverage tax.
President of the city council in 2017 was Susan Sandberg. That’s a role to which she has returned this year. In a telephone interview on Friday, Sandberg shared McKim’s view that a CIB as the governance structure for a convention center expansion should have been explored.
“I thought what I heard from the county commissioners was there was some willingness to work with the city through a CIB,” Sandberg said. But when she floated that idea at the late August meeting, Carmichael, who was attending on behalf of the mayor’s office, said, “Mayor Hamilton has made it clear to me that he’s not interested in pursuing a CIB model.”
On Friday, Sandberg told The B Square: “My hope is we can get back to the table, that we can start talking about this in a way that compromise is possible. I don’t know if it’s possible.
Like councilor Geoff McKim, county board of commissioners president Julie Thomas told The B Square that she was surprised at the abrupt apparent end to the negotiations. She also said that she was surprised that mayor John Hamilton had not himself attended the late August meeting.
Thomas also had some concerns about the city’s proposed 501(c)(3) governance structure for the convention center expansion, as compared to a public body like a capital improvement board (CIB).
Responding to a question from The B Square, Thomas said the commissioners had not yet received the appraisals for the land that the city of Bloomington wants the county to transfer to the city.
A transfer of real estate assets from the county to the city is a key part of the deal that Hamilton wanted to make in late summer, so that the city could undertake an expansion of the convention center on its own, without collaborating with the city.
On Friday, Thomas told The B Square that the county commissioners would announce at its regular meeting on Wednesday (Oct. 12) what they see as the possible options for moving forward.
It’s not just the county council that could decide to rescind the food and beverage tax. Local officials have cited the real possibility that the state legislature could, during its 2023 session, sunset all food and beverage taxes across the state. A bill that would have done exactly that was introduced in spring 2022, but died in committee.
That’s part of the impetus to get the funds from the food and beverage tax committed as soon as possible through a revenue bond, which would insulate the tax from a legislative sunset.
When The B Square spoke with city council president Sandberg, she speculated that the kind of space that the city’s Friday announcement described as “a flexible facility” might include a purpose-built performing arts venue—but she had no idea, she said.
“I’m just kind of supposing,” she said, based on the outcome of a study on the Waldron building, to which Bloomington has made a five-year commitment. Sandberg’s a speculation is one The B Square has heard from others as well.
One of the scenarios sketched out in the Waldron task force report was to sell the building at market rate, for a possibly non-arts purpose. The proceeds of the sale would be put towards the construction of a purpose-built venue for the visual and performing arts.
A feasibility study for a purpose-built performing arts venue, at a cost of around $50,000, was part of Bloomington’s planned expenditures for American Rescue Plan Act money.
Based on Bloomington’s online financial records, the city has made a half dozen payments totaling $95,049.85 to Trahan Architects, starting at the end of May, for an “arts feasibility study.” The Sept. 30, 2022 payment is described in the city’s records as “100% complete.”
On Friday, The B Square made an informal request to Bloomington communication director Andrew Krebbs for a copy of the Trahan Architects feasibility study, Krebbs declined to provide a copy of the study, deferring to the assistant city attorney who is assigned the task of responding to requests under Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act.