Capital board as governance for Monroe Convention Center expansion to be on July 5 county agenda

The long-planned expansion of the Monroe Convention Center, which has been stalled since March 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, could take a small step forward next week.

Monroe County commissioners, from left: Lee Jones, Penny Githens, and Julie Thomas. (June 28, 2023)

At their regular meeting next Wednesday (July 5), Monroe County commissioners are likely to consider and approve an ordinance that will establish a seven-member capital improvement board (CIB) to provide the governance structure for the expansion. [2023-06-28 draft ordinance]

Expectations about next week’s action are based on the discussion at a Wednesday work session, which was held by commissioners following their regular meeting.

The previous night, at a county council work session, attended by commissioner Penny Githens, the council passed a motion made by councilor Geoff McKim, which supported the path that the commissioners are now taking.

When Githens asked for the county council’s thoughts on the idea of proceeding with the creation of a CIB, McKim responded by saying, “I move we express strong support for the commissioners moving forward and creating a CIB.” That motion got unanimous support from the seven county councilors.

Adding his support from the public mic on Tuesday night was former county councilor Eric Spoonmore, who was speaking as the president and CEO of the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce. Spoonmore said, “We have such an exciting opportunity on our hands here. And you all have been instrumental to making that happen,” He added, “So please do charge full speed ahead on this capital improvement board and with the interlocal agreement.”

Even if the CIB is established, a deal that still needs to be hashed out is an interlocal agreement between the county and the city—which will address various points that have been contentious over the last few years.

Among the points of contention are the allocation of appointments to the convention and visitor commission (CVC). Another point of friction is the way land that is now owned by the city or the county will be incorporated into the expansion project.

A similar CIB ordinance was already approved by commissioners last year, on Nov. 9, 2022.  But no CIB was created—because the actual enactment, under the wording of the ordinance, was set up to be contingent on actions of Bloomington’s city council and mayor, which had to be taken by the end of 2022.

It’s the commissioners who have the statutory authority to create a CIB, not the mayor or the city council. But at that time, commissioners were looking to get the ordinance on the books—and put the ball in the city government’s court for making forward progress.

The city council did pass a resolution expressing general agreement with the terms of the ordinance. But Bloomington mayor John Hamilton not only failed to express agreement with the terms of the ordinance—he vetoed the council’s resolution. Hamilton’s preferred governance structure for the convention center expansion is a non-profit.

The mayoral veto was overridden by the council at its first meeting of this year.

This time around, the county commissioners are not looking to make the creation of the CIB contingent on anything the city government does.

At a city council work session held in the second week of June,  which was attended by Bloomington’s corporation counsel Beth Cate and deputy mayor Mary Catherine Carmichael, they conveyed their preference that the city handle the construction project, with a CIB possible playing a role in operations, once the expanded facility is built.

At the city council work session, Githens responded to Cate and Carmichael by saying that the idea is 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.

At the center of the city council’s work session discussion was a draft of the interlocal agreement  Cate and Carmichael indicated that they would later provide feedback on the draft.

County attorney Jeff Cockerill told The B Square that as of Tuesday morning (June 27) he had not received any written feedback from city officials on the draft interlocal agreement.

Providing some incentive to both city and county governments alike to make forward progress on the convention center expansion is a new law passed by the Indiana General Assembly. The state legislature concluded this year’s session a couple of months ago.

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.

Enacted in 2017, the 1-percent food and beverage tax was supposed to be used to pay for the convention center expansion.

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].

At Wednesday’s county commissioners work session, Visit Bloomington executive director Mike McAfee gave another reason why he would welcome some forward progress on the expansion of the convention center.

In July 2024, the existing convention center will be hosting the Indiana Society of Association Executives for their three-day annual conference. That means 150 meeting planners from across Indiana will be here in Bloomington, McAfee said. By the time they arrive, about a year from now, McAfee said it would be nice to have “at least something on paper to tell them about and showcase to them.”