On Wednesday, Nov. 9, many elected and appointed officials across Monroe County will be reviewing election results from the day before.
But some of those officials have a meeting set for Nov. 9 to talk about the possible future expansion of the Monroe County convention center.
The idea of a joint effort by Bloomington and Monroe County to expand the existing convention center has been pursued for several years, but had stalled just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, amid wrangling over governance issues.
According to county commissioners administrator Angie Purdie, the 1 p.m. meeting in the Nat U. Hill room of the Monroe County courthouse is supposed to include the mayor’s office in the form of Bloomington’s director of public engagement (Mary Catherine Carmichael), two city councilmembers (Susan Sandberg and Sue Sgambelluri), two county councilors (Geoff McKim and Cheryl Munson), and all three county commissioners.
For advocates of a county convention center expansion that would be undertaken as a collaborative effort by the county and the city, the scheduling of the meeting will likely come as welcome news.
The idea of a collaboration was dealt a big setback in the first week of October, when the Bloomington released a statement that effectively declared dead any kind of partnership, even one that transferred county assets to the city so that the city could undertake an expansion of the county convention center on its own.
The Nov. 9 meeting might signal a chance for Bloomington to return to negotiations for some kind of deal, even if the deal involves the city’s ownership of the expansion project.
On a scenario without any collaboration, Bloomington could pursue the development of its own meeting facility—on land that it owns at 3rd Street and College Avenue, across from the existing convention center. That would leave Bloomington with separate two convention centers across the street from each other.
About that kind of scenario, president of the county council, Kate Wiltz, said at an early August council meeting: “[T]wo convention centers, Bloomington and Monroe County—for crying out loud, that would be ridiculous.”
On that occasion, Wiltz pointed to the intended funding source for a convention center expansion, which is the 1-percent food and beverage tax, which was enacted in 2017 on a 4–3 vote of the county council. Wiltz said, “I feel pretty strongly that there’s a reason we’ve collected this money, and we can’t just sit on it…”
How much food and beverage tax money are the city of Bloomington and Monroe County sitting on?
By way of background, the revenue from the tax is divided between Bloomington and Monroe County government based on the location of the business that collects the tax. If a business is located inside the city, tax revenue collected by the business (from its patrons) goes to Bloomington. Revenue collected by businesses not inside Bloomington goes to Monroe County government. In round numbers, that works out to around 90 percent of the tax that goes to Bloomington.
For this year through August, the city of Bloomington has seen about $2.4 million in revenue from the countywide tax on food and beverage sales. When this year’s total is added to a $9 million fund balance, which Bloomington recorded at the end of 2021, that works out to a current food and beverage tax fund balance of around $11.4 million.
Expenditures of food and beverage tax revenue, by either Bloomington or Monroe County, have to be approved by a seven-member local commission called the food and beverage advisory commission (FABTAC). There’s currently a vacancy for one of three “community representatives” on the FABTAC.
The FABTAC is a seven-member group. The other four seats, besides the three community representatives, are split between county and city government: the president of county commissioners (Julie Thomas); a county councilor (Cheryl Munson); the Bloomington mayor (John Hamilton); a member of the city council (Dave Rollo).
This week on Tuesday, the FABTAC met to review and approve the annual report for 2021. That’s a document that was supposed to be approved in February.
The topic of the convention center got no mention during the FATAC’s Tuesday meeting.
There was no activity in 2021 by the FABTAC connected to the expansion of the convention center. But in January of that year, the commission did approve the use of $300,000 in food and beverage tax revenue to pay debt service and management expenses on the existing convention center.
The annual report for 2021 also includes a description of actions taken by FABTAC in 2020, the year when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which impacted many businesses that either collect the tax from its patrons or have some connection to the tourism industry.
In 2022, the FABTAC approved $400,000 for a grant program administered by county government to aid businesses located in Monroe County, but outside city limits. In 2020, the FABTAC also approved $2 million for Bloomington to fund a loan program for businesses inside the city limits.
Those programs drew some criticism, because the membership of FABTAC included three owners of businesses who were eligible to receive the financial benefit from either the city or the county programs for pandemic relief. When the separate votes were taken on either the county’s or the city’s relief program, the owners who were eligible to receive a financial benefit did not participate in the vote, due to the conflict.
The meeting that is now scheduled for Nov. 9 is in line with a statement read aloud by county commissioners last Wednesday (Oct. 12), in response to the statement that Bloomington had issued the previous week.
In its early passages, the statement from commissioners expressed their displeasure: “We are disappointed and dismayed at the actions of the mayor’s office.” The statement lamented the fact that no followup meeting to an Aug. 31 gathering had been scheduled, even though there had been a consensus that a next meeting should be scheduled.
A sore point for commissioners, which they conveyed in their statement, was the fact that Bloomington’s public engagement director, Mary Catherine Carmichael, wrote in an email that she would not be attending a future meeting, because of a missed deadline—one that the city had set for getting a deal done.
Board of county commissioners Julie Thomas wrapped up the recitation of the statement with a look forward. “But we are not giving up. We believe it would be beneficial to organize the next meeting in good faith.” The statement continued, “We invite the city council, county council, and the mayor to attend. If the mayor’s office chooses not to attend, we will still hold the meeting.”
The statement from county commissioners wrapped up like this: “This will be an opportunity for all of us who are interested in pursuing a collaborative approach to consider all of our viable options.”