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