Convention center expansion: Bloomington city council looking to make CIB pick by early September

The Bloomington city council’s one appointment to a new seven-member capital improvement board (CIB) could be made at the council’s Sept. 6 meeting.

That’s the timeframe that city council president Sue Sgambelluri announced on Wednesday.

The CIB, which was created under state law by Monroe County commissioners on July 5 , is supposed to provide the governance structure for an expansion of the Monroe Convention Center.

The city of Bloomington has an online application for all board and commissions,  which now includes a box that can be checked for the capital improvement board.

Last Wednesday, the county commissioners made their two appointments to the CIB: John Whikehart and Joyce Poling. Whikehart is a former Bloomington deputy mayor, former chancellor of Ivy Tech, and served on a convention center steering committee that was formed in the late 2010s. Poling is assistant to the Ivy Tech chancellor for community engagement, and a former Monroe County commissioner.

This Tuesday (July 26), the Monroe County council made its one appointment to the CIB—Eric Spoonmore, who is president and CEO of the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce, and a former county councilor.

In addition to the appointment made by Bloomington’s city council, the city government gets two CIB appointments that are made by the mayor. That is a total of six appointments made by city or county entities: county commissioners (2); county council (1); mayor of Bloomington (2); and city council (1).

Under the ordinance enacted by county commissioners to establish the CIB, the seventh CIB member is supposed to be chosen by the six who are appointed by city and county government.

Under state law, a CIB has to be partisan balanced. Under the Monroe County ordinance, each of the pairs of appointments by the commissioners and the mayor have to be partisan balanced. For example, the two picks by county commissioners meet that standard, because Poling is a Republican and Whikehart is a Democrat.

Under the Monroe County ordinance, there is no partisan requirement for the appointees by the city council or the county council. Spoonmore, the county council’s appointee, is a Democrat. The city council’s appointee could be affiliated with any political party. Or based on recent litigation over a Bloomington plan commission appointment,  the appointee could be unaffiliated with a party.

Given the partisan balancing required for the appointments by the mayor and the commissioners, a scenario with four out of six in the same political party is the worst imbalance that could result for the six appointees chosen by city and county government.

So whatever the party affiliations are for the first six appointees, it will be possible for those six to make an appointment that meets the partisan balancing requirement under state law.

To sift through the applications for the city council, Sgambelluri has appointed a three-person council committee—herself, Ron Smith, and Susan Sandberg. To arrive at that group of three, Sgambelluri said she had picked one person from each of the three council committees that are normally used to make recommendations on appointments to other boards and commissions.

The convention center expansion project, a planned collaboration between the city and county governments, stalled out in March 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The creation of a CIB is part of an effort to get the project restarted.

There is some urgency to making the CIB appointments, because the state legislature has noticed the lack of progress on the convention center expansion. The expansion is supposed to be funded by revenue from the 1-percent food and beverage tax that the county council enacted in 2017. That tax is enabled only through a law enacted by the state legislature.

Some new state legislation, passed in the 2023 session, requires the city of Bloomington and Monroe County to show some specific signs of progress on the convention center expansion. 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.

The revenue from the food and beverage tax is divided between the city and the county governments, based on the location of the establishment that collects the tax. While the city has pledged its revenue from the food and beverage tax to the convention center expansion, the county has not.

Projects that are being considered by the county government for potential funding by food and beverage tax revenue include the creation of a limestone heritage tourist destination, and the installation of synthetic turf soccer fields at Karst Farm Park.

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 $2.3 million that has been collected through the first six months of this year, there’s about $16.5 million in food and beverage tax revenue that is currently sitting waiting to be spent.

This year’s June report for food and beverage tax revenue shows the first year-over-year drop in several months—$355,984.49 in June 2023 compared to ​​$357,556.21 in June 2022.

The convention center expansion is considered an important project by community leaders. But the results from this year’s community survey, which are being released this week, show that for Bloomington residents, the convention center expansion is not a top priority.

Rated as essential or very important by more than 60 percent of respondents were: high-speed internet access; the Hopewell project; and job creation in the Trades District. But the convention center expansion was rated as essential or very important by just 18 percent of respondents.