Holcomb visits Bloomington, Cook Group president tells locals: “We can’t sit around and wait for the governor…to solve our problems.”

On Thursday, the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce hosted a luncheon at the Monroe Convention Center featuring Indiana governor Eric Holcomb.

The main event highlighted Holcomb as he fielded questions from Indiana University president Pamela Whitten, as the two sat in easy chairs in front of an audience of about 450 people.

But for many in attendance, it was the remarks delivered by Cook Group president Pete Yonkman, towards the start of the program, that might have left a more lasting impression. Cook is Bloomington’s second largest employer behind Indiana University.

Yonkman said at the start that he did not have prepared speech to deliver, as he does on most occasions.

But the impromptu remarks that Yonkman did make were organized around one basic theme: Bloomington’s local leaders need to overcome their differences to make progress on important issues.

Specific issues that Yonkman highlighted included housing, conditions at the county jail, and the lack of progress on the convention center expansion.

Sprinkled through the audience were a dozen elected officials—decision makers who are responsible for solving the challenges that Yonkman talked about.

Chamber president and CEO Eric Spoonmore listed them off as part of his introductions: Bloomington city councilmembers Susan Sandberg, Jim Sims, Ron Smith, Sue Sgambelluri and Isabel Piedmont-Smith; county commissioners Penny Githens and Lee Jones; county councilmembers Marty Hawk, Peter Iversen, and Cheryl Munson; Van Buren township trustee Rita Barrow; Bedford mayor Sam Craig; and Mitchell mayor Nathan Jenkins.

Yonkman described the governor’s role in solving problems as creating space for locals “to fight the battles that we need to, against the challenges that we see.”

He added, “But we can’t sit around and wait for the governor, and for the state of Indiana, to solve our problems and our challenges in our communities.”

Yonkman noted the various government officials in the room, along with representatives from the nonprofit community, and business leaders. He summed up the crowd as including “all the elements and all the different groups around the community that are enabled to make our community thrive.”

He continued, “But at the core of it, we have to be centered on what we’re trying to accomplish. And I think sometimes, I see in our community—I see some challenges.”

Yonkman told the crowd he wanted to “challenge your thinking a little bit.”

On the issue of housing, Yonkman described how Cook Group had years ago surveyed its employees and asked what their biggest need is. Housing was the biggest issue they identified. So he wanted to start supporting builders of housing, Yonkman said.

At a hearing on a local housing project, which he thought would help address the needs of the community, Yonkman said he testified in favor of it. The response he heard to his comments  was a lack of consensus on the idea that there is a need for additional housing. “That was shocking to me,” Yonkman said.

Consistent with Yonkman’s description was the April 20, 2021 meeting of the Monroe County plan commission, which considered a rezone request for a development called Southern Meadows, which would have built 95 paired townhouses.

At the Southern Meadows plan commission hearing, Yonkman said, “We also see that people really are asking for the ability to have a home that they own with their space, their own driveway.”

Monroe County plan commissioner Margaret Clements said at April 20, 2021 meeting, “So, I just want to put that out there and let everybody grapple with the fact that I hear the need. I hear people say that, but I am not necessarily convinced.”

Clements added, “I have read through every study that has been put before me and as far as I can tell the strongest need for affordable housing in our community is 18-to-24-year old students.”

During his remarks at the governor’s luncheon, Yonkman said he concluded from that experience testifying in favor of a housing project, “As a community, we haven’t even agreed on what we want as housing.”

Yonkman added, “Do we want density? Do we not want density? Do we want expansion? Do we not want expansion?”

He wrapped up the point on housing by saying, “How are we expected to deal with the real needs of our community, if we as leadership can’t even agree on what the definition of housing is?”

About the stalled convention center expansion project, Yonkman said, “I’ve watched the ability of us to try to think about a convention center and how many years that’s gone on.”

The project has been stalled since before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, due a lack of agreement between county commissioners and the mayor of Bloomington on basics like the governance structure of the expansion.

Yonkman used understatement to characterize the convention center project, “That hasn’t been the most efficient process, I would say.”

About the situation with the conditions at the Monroe County jail, and the discussion about building a new facility, Yonkman reported that he had visited the jail. “I went to look for myself and I was appalled by what I saw,” Yonkman said.

He continued, focusing first on improvement of current conditions, as opposed to building a new facility. “Jails are not supposed to be fun places. But they’re not supposed to be substandard human living,” Yonkman said.

About the current conditions at the Monroe County jail, Yonkman said, “I don’t understand how, as a community—that is caring and supposed to be for people who are struggling—how did we let it get that way?”

Yonkman said he thinks a new jail is needed, but added, “I’ve seen how long it takes us to build.” That’s why there are at least some efforts underway to try to create a basic standard of living for folks who are in the Monroe County jail, Yonkman said.

Yonkman compared Bloomington’s situation to the community surrounding a project called 38th and Sheridan in Indianapolis. The 38th and Sheridan project includes an effort by Cook Medical to improve food access—by building a new full-sized grocery store—in the vicinity of a site where the company is developing a new medical device manufacturing plant.

Yonkman said the area around 38th and Sheridan “has tremendous challenges—challenges far bigger than we have here in Bloomington.” They also have far fewer resources than Bloomington, he said. “They couldn’t even imagine having the resources we have here today.”

When people in the 38th and Sheridan community work on a problem, Yonkman said, “They start with a proposition: How do we make lives better for our community—let’s all work together towards that element.”

About Bloomington’s approach to significant problems, Yankman said, “I’ve seen too much fighting, too much political elements, … battles we’re fighting—those aren’t helping people.”

Yonkman told the crowd, “I have tremendous respect for the people in this room and the work that you do.”

He added, “I know that it’s not easy, that we can have our differences.”

He wrapped up by saying, “But our differences should allow us to move the organization forward in a way that’s positive for people around us.”

Photos: Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce Governor’s Luncheon

17 thoughts on “Holcomb visits Bloomington, Cook Group president tells locals: “We can’t sit around and wait for the governor…to solve our problems.”

  1. WOW ! Tottaly agree with Yonkman’s statements. What is wrong with the city and county government that they can’t seem to get along on anything! C’mon people !

    1. Because Bloomington is so NOT diverse when it comes to government. They only think one way, THEIR WAY, and any other way is not acceptable. And we as citizens that live here have to just accept what they say and do to this city. When there is no openness to looking at things differently, there will never be consensus or “getting along.” That is called bullying. It makes living here not super enjoyable.

    2. I pray yonkman will make a change for this community for it is out of control…Here since 1966

  2. As a retired Realtor– I sold alot of Condos, to mostly older folks. Young people I encountered wanted to live in single family ranch homes with backyards for peace, gardens, and pets. Housing is an issue in Monroe County and the surrounding counties. There has to be a greater meeting of minds and hearts. Too much congestion and traffic are not the answer. Subdivisions are a thing of the past as are HOA’s. Mental health problems come with packing in city residents. Parks and green areas as well as community gardens and orchards are an answer that needs more attention.
    Having great governor is a step in the right direction. Let’s all put our best foot forward to be inclusive and cease embracing division especially politically. Thank you. God bless our county and city.

  3. There is an important role for planning in housing development. Need for housing does not trump the available suitable land for building. Creating a housing development on land with complex sinkholes and then making the homeowners association responsible for drainage is not an affordable option for our community in the long run. Doubling the density is an especially bad idea. One need only look to the current crisis in Turkey in order to better understand the role of planning in housing development. It isn’t affordable in the end if one loses everything. For those who wonder about the reference to 18-24 year olds as the predominant demographic in need of affordable housing in our community, that comes from the American Communities Survey.

    1. If there is available, suitable land for housing, and there is demand for small single family homes with yards and garages, who are you to keep that from happening? Isn’t owning that type of housing the American dream?? In regards to Turkey, planning had nothing to do with what happened over there. Engineering, or the lack thereof, did. Every legitimate local survey that has been completed in the last decade has revealed a lack of housing for young working families. No one is looking at a national survey to determine the needs of this community. It’s time for elected officials and their appointments to pull their heads out of the sand and start working to improve the lives of the majority of this community, not just a small slice.

      1. Hi Steve, I have an advisory capacity, only, in my role on the plan commission as a private resident. The American Communities Survey was a locally administered survey and it is often quoted by local leaders in asserting the need for housing in our community. As far as the earthquake disaster in Turkey is concerned, it very much involved planning in terms of building housing in an earthquake prone area without following protocols for seismic mitigation strategies. Finally, there were no guarantees by the developer on sales price for the homes after they were built.

      2. Steve, the type of housing you are advocating for is not, in fact, the type of housing being proposed by developers. There are lots of reasons for this, some the result of the current financial climate and some not. But lack of suitable land for development, and the high cost of land suitable for detached single family houses, are constraints planning cannot responsibly ignore.

      3. It seems to me that if some land is zoned for ONLY that type of housing, someone will find a way to make a buck building those types of houses. If you give them the option for denser housing, they will always go with that because there is more money to be made with that type of housing.

      4. Hi Steve, the builder was allowed to build what was permitted by right. The builder requested an exception to build 2 x the density allowed by right. The county did not deny the builder the right to build.

  4. How in the hell is the expansion of the White Elephant, aka MC Convention Center, an imperative of a “thriving” community? Cook,Inc. apparently want more opportunities for publicly subsidized meetings.

    1. I agree with Mr Moore. state government with Holcomb at the helm pursue super reactionary policies but Cook Group is ok with that.

    2. You do realize that Cook Group owns French Lick resort and does all of its larger internal meetings there, right?

      1. Yes, I do. So why is the corporation whining so much about expanding the Conference Center, at the public expense? Altruism?

      2. Further I doubt that the French Lick resort’s bottom line would be impacted if the corporation had events at a venue closer to its headquarters. You seem to think it would, I guess.

  5. According to the Indy Star 7/15/2022 our state had over 6.1 billion in reserves, “an unprecedented massive number and $1.24 billion more than expected.” And yet we can count on no help from the state to solve local problems, most of which come down to a lack of funds? This reminds me of another story from Star maybe 10 years ago of a resident who wore garbage bags on his feet instead of shoes, and covered his windows with plastic. When he died it turned out he had a couple of million dollars in the bank. The state should reimburse cities for the tax caps put on property taxes in our state and interfering with logical annexation to fund local services.
    Where there is a democracy, there is often healthy debate about the best ways to move forward or address issues of concern to all. Businesses are rarely run this way, usually it’s top down control, which helps explain why Elon is now claiming he paid twice what Twitter was worth and we should all feel sorry for him. If it was wise to run government like a business we might all be saluting a NAZI flag now, instead of just some of us.

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