Interlocal agreement on convention center approved on Bloomington’s side, county’s OK expected soon

At its regular meeting last Wednesday, Bloomington’s city council approved its side of the interlocal agreement that will control the working relationship among local government entities as they collaborate on an expansion of the Monroe Convention Center.

The vote was 8–0. Kate Rosenbarger was absent.

Signing the agreement earlier in the day on Wednesday was Bloomington mayor John Hamilton. That wraps up the city of Bloomington’s side of the arrangement.

Remaining signatories of the interlocal agreement are the Monroe County council and the county’s board of commissioners. The county elected officials are expected to consider the interlocal agreement at their first meetings after the Thanksgiving holiday.

The convention center project has been long in the works. City councilmember Steve Volan said on Wednesday night that the expansion has been a topic of discussion for the 20 years he has served on the city council.

After achieving some momentum in the second half of 2019, the convention center expansion stalled just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020.

By March of 2020, city and county officials appeared to have settled on a capital improvement board (CIB) as the governance for an expansion. The idea was that the CIB would work with the convention and visitors commission (CVC) to operate the expanded center.

But in March of 2020, there was a significant topic of dispute that blocked progress: How would the appointments for the CIB and CVC be handled? By mid-2022, Bloomington mayor John Hamilton had walked back the city’s support for a CIB as the governance structure.

The question came to a head when the city council in late 2022 passed a resolution of support for the idea of a CIB to govern the convention center expansion.  Hamilton vetoed the resolution, which was then overridden by the council as one of its first actions of 2023.

When the county board of commissioners in July of this year enacted an ordinance to establish a CIB under state law, that settled the question of how the CIB appointments would be made. In the county ordinance, the appointing authorities for the seven CIB seats were set out as follows: mayor (2 seats); city council (1 seat); county commissioners (2 seats); county council (1 seat); six CIB appointees selected by elected officials (1 seat).

The CIB appointments have now all been made, with the seventh one coming a week and half ago.

Not settled by the CIB ordinance was the question of how the CVC appointments would be made or exactly how the downtown real estate that is owned by the city and county governments would factor into the convention center expansion. But the interlocal agreement covers those issues.

The CVC appointments are set out in state law.  Under state law, two of the five seats are appointed by the county commissioners and the remaining three seats are appointed by the county council.

So an interlocal agreement signed between city and county governments could not delegate a statutory duty of county elected officials to some city entity. That’s why the interlocal agreement has to set up the appointing authorities to the CVC so that they match the state statute.

But the county council’s CVC appointments come with a wrinkle. The county council has to consider the recommendations for appointments that are made by the city council.

The interlocal agreement divides the three county council CVC appointments into two categories. One category is the two seats that are subject to a statutory requirement that they be owners or general managers of hotels or motels with at least 40 beds. The other is a seat with no restrictions.

For the two hotel-related seats, the county council has to make the appointments only after giving “good faith consideration to a list of at least three recommendations made by the city council.”

For the other, unrestricted seat, the county council has less latitude. For the unrestricted appointment, the county council has to choose from a list of four recommendations made by the city council.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Bloomington’s corporation counsel, Beth Cate, ticked through the basics of the CIB’s responsibility and how the property transfer would work, as outlined in the terms of the interlocal agreement.

The CIB will manage the design and construction of the convention center expansion and eventually the operation of the merged convention center, which will consist of the existing center and the expansion, Cate said.

The design and construction will be funded through debt that’s issued by a city-created building corporation, with the debt service paid by city government as the lessee of that expansion. The source of funds for the city’s payments will be the city’s share of the countywide 1-percent food and beverage tax, Cate said.

One of the points of friction between Bloomington mayor John Hamilton and the county commissioners had been a decision on the location for the expansion. Both the city and county governments have acquired real estate in the vicinity of 3rd Street, west of Walnut Street, with an eye towards using the land for the convention center expansion, or for a hotel and parking structure to support the expansion.

Under the terms of the interlocal agreement, the decision about the exact location would effectively be turned over to the CIB. But under the terms of the interlocal agreement, the CIB has to make use of the work that was already done on the analysis of location, scope and design.

Invited to the CIB’s December meeting are representatives from Convergence/Schmidt Associates, which is the design firm that did some preliminary work on the Monroe Convention Center expansion before 2020. The CIB’s December meeting is set for 9 a.m. on Dec. 13.

Cate told the city council that the CIB would ask the city and governments for the real estate that the CIB believes is needed for construction of the expansion. Once the debt is paid off, the city’s building corporation will transfer the expansion to the city government. Then the city would transfer ownership of the expansion to the CIB.

After construction is complete, the interlocal agreement requires that the city council and the county council agree on an approved CIB budget by Dec. 1 of each year.  On Wednesday, the timing drew a question from city councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith. She raised a question about the date, given that the county and city budgets have to be approved each year by the respective fiscal bodies a month before that deadline.

During Wednesday’s meeting Cate responded to Piedmont-Smith by saying this was a date that the county’s side had provided.

In a followup email to city councilmembers the same night, Cate wrote: “[T]he interlocal reflects that the county council would like for convenience to wrap their funding into the county’s regular budget session.” Cate added, “But, the statutory provisions governing the CIB and CVC budgets don’t actually require that those budgets be done as part of the overall county budget, or on the same timeframe. So, we have more flexibility to take the time to reach agreement, with Dec. 1 as the cutoff.”