First meeting of new board gets momentum restarted for Monroe Convention Center expansion

In early July, Monroe County commissioners used a state statute to create a seven-member capital improvement board (CIB) to govern the expansion of the Monroe Convention Center.

About three months later, on Wednesday morning, the first six appointees of the CIB convened an initial meeting in the Finch Room of the convention center.

The six appointments that have been made so far came from four different entities—county commissioners (2), county council, the mayor (2), and the city council. The initial six will choose the seventh.

Based on Wednesday morning’s meeting, the choice of the seventh member is hoped to be made at the board’s next meeting, now set for Nov. 8 at 1 p.m. Those interested in being considered can apply using a web-based form on Monroe County’s website.

The six are a group that includes members with a substantial history of governmental service. Here’s the list with their appointing authority in parens: Mick Renneisen and Adam Thies (mayor); John Whikehart and Joyce Poling (county commissioners); Eric Spoonmore (county council); and Doug Bruce (city council).

Under the chairship of Whikehart, who was chosen as president, the group worked its way on Wednesday through a meeting agenda that included: a briefing from county attorney Jeff Cockerill on the CIB’s responsibilities, how the initial budget will be created, where things stand with the food and beverage tax revenues, and a review of the properties that could be available for the expansion project.

Some light friction emerged right at the start when the vote was taken on a motion by Spoonmore to make Whikehart president and Bruce vice president. They were confirmed on a 4–2 split vote, with dissent from Renneisen and Thies.

Renneisen and Thies were the two appointments made by Bloomington mayor John Hamilton. Renneisen served as deputy mayor starting in 2016, when Hamilton took office, through spring of 2021. Thies has served as associate vice president for capital planning at Indiana University since October 2019.

After Spoonmore made his motion, Renneisen asked about the possibility of waiting until the seventh member is selected, before electing officers.

Spoonmore responded by saying, “I think it’s important that we send the signal to the community that we’re ready to get to work—that we’ve got some order in place here, that somebody can kind of guide discussion on the work of the capital improvement board. Because we haven’t seen a whole lot of momentum up to this point.”

Before the vote, Thies told the group that he was probably the most apolitical among them, or knew the least about all the back-and-forth between the city and the county that had unfolded in the last few years.

Still, Thies gave an accurate summary when he said, “It would seem to me that there’s been a lot of fighting between the county and the city.” The struggle between Hamilton and the three county commissioners, over the governance of the convention center expansion, had stalled out the project before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Thies asked, “Why wouldn’t we have co-chairs—one from the county, one from the city?”

Others on the board gave that suggestion a cool response. Poling described the practice of using co-chairs as something that nonprofits might adopt for fundraising efforts.

After the meeting, Thies confirmed to The B Square that his vote in opposition to Spoonmore’s nominations was not based on any thought that Whikehart and Bruce would not do a good job. Rather he was hoping for a more collaborative approach. Given the contentious history of the project, he said, was trying to be collaborative.

Spoonmore responded to a B Square question after the meeting by saying that nominating either Renneisen or Thies, for vice president or president, would not have provided the kind of continuity the CIB needs.

By that, he meant that the ordinance creating the CIB sets an expiration date of Jan. 15, 2024 for the terms of appointments by the mayor and the county commissioners—as part of its scheme to stagger the appointments.

As mayoral appointees, the terms for Renneisen and Thies will expire on Jan. 15, 2024. That means it will not be John Hamilton who makes the appointments of those seats next year, but rather almost certainly the Democratic Party’s nominee for mayor, Kerry Thomson. She is unopposed on the Nov. 7 ballot. Spoonmore put it like this, “Nobody really knows what’s gonna happen to those appointments.”

As a commissioner appointee, Whikehart’s term will also expire on Jan. 15, 2024 and would need to be reappointed. But it’s the county commissioners who appoint Whikehart’s seat, and the same three county commissioners will be serving next year, because none of those seats were up for election this year. Serving on the Monroe County board of commissioners are: Penny Githens; Julie Thomas; and Lee Jones.

Getting some discussion at Wednesday’s meeting was the status of food and beverage tax revenues. 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—attracted the attention of the state legislature this 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 new state legislation 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.

County attorney Jeff Cockerill told the board that the filing of that plan is the responsibility of city and county government, not the CIB.

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

An appropriation of $250,000 from the city’s food and beverage tax fund is a part of Bloomington’s 2024 budget, which is set for approval by the city council next Wednesday (Oct. 11). The sum is supposed to be the initial budget for the CIB. That’s money that can be tapped for its own legal counsel and controller.

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. One project the county has considered is to set up a limestone heritage tourist destination.

By the end of 2022  Monroe County had accumulated $1.1 million and Bloomington had accumulated $13.1 million in their food and beverage tax funds.  When added to the $2,682,390.49 received by the city so far this year and $300,420.65 received by the county, that makes about $15.8 million in food and beverage tax revenue for the city and $1.4 million for the county that is currently sitting, waiting to be spent.

Bloomington’s corporation counsel Beth Cate reported at Wednesday’s meeting that she had asked Buzz Krohn, who helps the city with financial forecasting for bond issuance, for his initial sense of the city’s bonding capacity, based on food and beverage tax revenue. According to Cate, Krohn said he thinks the city’s 20-year bonding capacity somewhere around $50 million.

In 2019, the estimated cost for the convention center expansion project, depending on whether a new parking garage were included, ranged from $40 million to $59 million, but post-pandemic figures are likely to be significantly more.

CIB members discussed whether the city’s contracts with Convergence/Schmidt Associates, which had done some preliminary architectural design work four and five years ago, could be transferred or assigned to the restart of a project. Spoonmore and Renneisen—who were both intimately familiar with the history of the project—were in agreement that they did not want to “reinvent the wheel” by starting from scratch with the selection of an architect.

The CIB is inviting representatives from Convergence/Schmidt Associates to attend its December meeting, which is tentatively set for Dec. 13.

On the status of the interlocal agreement between the city of Bloomington and Monroe County, county attorney Jeff Cockerill said that he thinks that the two parties agree on what the document should say, and are working on the wording. Cockerill put it like this: “I think we’re all conceptually in agreement of what it should say. We’re just trying to make sure it says that.”

As he was wrapping up the meeting adjournment, Whikehart said the “distance award” for meeting attendance should go to the former mayor of Kokomo—“Greg Goodnight, who I see sitting here in the back of the room, who’s attended our meeting.” Whikehart added, “Have no idea what he’s doing here!”

Through his consulting firm Goodnight has been providing support to the city of Bloomington in negotiations on the interlocal agreement between the city and Monroe County in connection with the convention center expansion.

The room where the CIB held its first meeting is named after William J. Finch, whose name is listed twice on the 1991 plaque that’s affixed to the west entrance to the convention center. That was the year it was renovated from its previous use as Graham Motor Sales auto dealership.

Finch’s two listings are for his membership in the Bloomington Municipal Facilities Corporation, and as attorney for the Monroe County Convention And Visitors Commission.

Another name that appears twice on the plaque belongs to a person who was sitting at the table on Wednesday.

Joyce Poling’s name appears on the 1991 plaque as a member of the Monroe County board of commissioners and a second time as a member of the Monroe County Convention and Visitors Commission.

9 thoughts on “First meeting of new board gets momentum restarted for Monroe Convention Center expansion

  1. Good article, Dave. Nice to see things up and running with the CIB after all this time. One correction: the most previous use of the convention center site was Tom O’Daniel Ford. 
    I appreciate the coverage.

    1. Yep. The building was originally built for Graham Motor Sales but was purchased by an out of town dealer and renamed decades before the conversion to the convention center conversion occurred.

  2. Looks pretty white and male. I hope the 7th member will be a woman or person of color

      1. I know…one woman. One white woman. Can’t we have more than one woman?

  3. Joyce Polling is a seasoned and savvy public servant. When are we going to judge people by their effectiveness and competency rather than “quota” characteristics that tell us nothing about ability? I know she can stand up to any man (or woman) in the room to advocate for what she thinks is the right thing to do.

  4. Dave, Thank you for the coverage of our first meeting. I would like to share two observations. First, the composition of the CIB is in fact indicative of a true collaboration between the city and the county. Each equally made three of the six appointments. In addition, the membership is truly bi-partisan: three Republicans and three Democrats. Historical differences have been replaced by forward looking board excitement. Looking in the rear view mirror will not be productive. Secondly, if gender “re-balancing” of the board becomes an issue to our elected officials, the commissioners’ two selections (a man and a woman) and the current mayor’s two selections (both men) are all four up for re-appointment January, 2024. As just one of six members of the CIB tasked with making our single additional appointment next month, my focus is on a process that will result in the confidence of our community that we want this to be the best project possible. Thanks again for the coverage, John Whikehart

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