Bloomington, Monroe County restart convention center talks, threat of lost tax revenue looms

Before Monday, it had been nearly six months since Bloomington and Monroe County officials last appeared in a public setting, to talk about the proposed expansion of the Monroe Convention Center.

The city council’s first meeting of the year, in early January, was the occasion when the city council voted to override  Bloomington mayor John Hamilton’s veto, of a city council resolution related to the convention center expansion. The mid-December 2022  city council resolution expressed support for a capital improvement board (CIB) as the governance structure for a convention center expansion.

On Monday at noon, the Bloomington city council convened a work session on the topic of the planned expansion of the Monroe Convention Center.

Providing a wake-up call to move the project forward was the Indiana General Assembly, which has now concluded this year’s session. Before wrapping up its work for the year, the state legislature passed HB 1454, which uses the local food and beverage tax as a prod, to require Bloomington and Monroe County to show some progress on the convention center project.

The center of Monday’s discussion was a draft of an interlocal agreement that is supposed to iron out some of the persistent wrinkles in discussions between the city and the county about the convention center.

Monday’s work session got light attendance from councilmembers themselves. Just four of nine city councilmembers showed up: council president Sue Sgambelluri, council vice president Isabel Piedmont-Smith, Jim Sims, and Susan Sandberg.

But joining the four city legislators were county council president Kate Wiltz, board of county commissioners president Penny Githens, county attorney Jeff Cockerill, Bloomington deputy mayor Mary Catherine Carmichael, and Bloomington corporation counsel Beth Cate.

The two items considered by the group on Monday were: the formation of a capital improvement board (CIB); and the wording of an interlocal agreement between the city and county governments about how the CIB and the convention and visitors commission (CVC) will function.

Under state law, the creation of a CIB is something that the county commissioners alone have the power to do. From a practical point of view, the ability of a CIB to function would depend on having in place an interlocal agreement ratified by the county commissioners, the county council, the mayor, and the city council.

Githens said on Monday she hopes the commissioners will be able to approve the creation of a seven-member CIB by the end of June.

Piedmont-Smith told Githens she appreciates the fact that the draft interlocal agreement makes an effort to include some requests by councilmembers that were attached to the council’s mid-December resolution in an amendment that was labeled as Exhibit A.

Those city council requests included elements that provided some city decision making on appointments to the CIB and to the CVC, and a requirement that the city and the county fiscal bodies approve the CIB’s annual budget.

Corporation counsel Beth Cate floated the idea at the start of the work session that the city of Bloomington could handle the initial construction of the expansion, and that a CIB could handle the operations of the expanded center, after it is built.

Cate put her suggestion like this: “Have the city largely go ahead—with appropriate public inputs and kind of usual processes we follow to get a big construction project done—to get that part done. And then hand that off to a CIB, once completed, for ongoing operations.”

Githens responded to Cate by alluding to the some of the rancorous past history of the failed collaboration on the project between the city and the county. “I don’t want to pick at a scab here,” Githens began.

She continued saying that the idea was to allow the CIB to handle some decisions that had proven contentious in the past—a choice of a specific site, determination of a size for the expansion, as well as the oversight of the actual construction.

Piedmont-Smith and Carmichael indicated that the city would be keen to see the city’s redevelopment commission reimbursed for its $5 million purchase of the former Bunger & Robertson property at 4th Street and College Avenue.

The former Bunger & Robertson property is a block north of the existing convention center site, and it’s a northward expansion that was at one point identified by a steering committee as a preferred option.

The idea is that the reimbursement to the city’s redevelopment commission would come from food and beverage tax proceeds.

The 1-percent food and beverage tax was enacted in 2017 by the county council for the explicit purpose of building a convention center expansion. The county council’s ability to impose that tax is enabled under a state statute.

The lack of progress by Bloomington and Monroe County on the convention center expansion—despite the fact that the tax has been collected for a half decade—has attracted the attention of the state legislature.

Based on the 2022 year-end food and beverage fund balances for the two governmental units—$1.1 million for the county and $13.1 million for the city—plus the roughly $1.5 million that has been collected through the first four months of this year, there’s nearly $16 million in food and beverage tax revenue that is currently sitting waiting to be spent.

The new state legislation passed this year requires the city of Bloomington and Monroe County to show some specific signs of progress. One requirement is the development of a plan to spend food and beverage tax revenue by Dec. 1 of this year. That plan has to be filed with the state by year’s end.

A second requirement is that by July 1, 2025, the city and the county have to actually spend some food and beverage tax money, as described in the required plan [HB 1454].

If those requirements aren’t met, the legislation ends Monroe County’s ability to collect a food and beverage tax.

Towards the end of the city council’s Monday work session, Cate indicated that the city would be forwarding to county officials  some suggestions about the wording of the interlocal agreement.

Githens said she thinks the group that met that day would need to get together again, to hit her goal of a CIB formed by the end of June.

2 thoughts on “Bloomington, Monroe County restart convention center talks, threat of lost tax revenue looms

  1. It is refreshing to see City and County leaders back at the table having productive discussions on this topic – an important project that will impact the City of Bloomington, Monroe County, and our entire region. Thanks to all who are working toward swift progress.

  2. Oh what it must be like to be an elected official and pay no personal price for pretending the convention industry hasn’t fundamentally changed since a coronavirus pandemic.

    The claim made by expansionists in 2017: There is a HUGE unmet market demand for a large convention space locally.

    The evidence of that unmet demand in the actions taken by private developers and the private convention center industry who could realize HUGE profits if there were an actual unmet demand for additional space: NOTHING…not a peep, even though the completed interstate makes Bloomington more accessible than ever to convention organizers and attendees.

    The hard truth is there was never an unmet market need, there certainly isn’t any increased demand after the pandemic, and Bloomington doesn’t have enough service workers for restaurants and hotels to meet the current consumer demand anyway. Wait times at restaurants are longer, restaurants are not open as many days or hours for lack of staffing, and understaffed hotels are struggling to keep their customers satisfied. Even The Taste of Bloomington keeps getting cancelled due to staffing issues.

    Crony capitalists never saw a taxpayer dollar they didn’t want to put in their pocket. The taxpayer subsidy of parking garages for hotels and restaurants is an even more egregious example than the taxpayer subsidy of convention space for those same industries. Shameful.

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