Convention center update: County Board of Commissioners pitches better collaboration between city and county, suggests formation of capital improvement board

Monroe County should form a capital improvement board to handle the ownership, control and management of an expanded convention center in downtown Bloomington—that was a key point of a memo distributed Wednesday morning by the Monroe County Board of Commissioners to the County Council, Bloomington City Council and the mayor.

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Monroe County Commissioners (from left) Lee Jones, Julie Thomas, Penny Githens.  July 24, 2019 (Dave Askins/Beacon)

The memo was read aloud in parts by each of the three commissioners at the conclusion of their Wednesday morning meeting. The memo concludes with a reference to the “Convention & Civic Center project.” Board of commissioners president Julie Thomas stressed the word ‘civic’ when she read it aloud, and added “underline ‘civic’.”

The memo came less than 24 hours after the county council’s Tuesday evening work session discussion about the idea of a kind of convention center summit involving city and county elected officials.

After the introductory material, which stresses “a spirit of consensus-building” among the four entities, the memo addresses two main topics: how the project will funded and how specific facilities will be configured.

On the question of funding, the memo calls for the city and the county to identify dedicated funding sources and to develop a “general, yet realistic, construction budget” for the project.

On the issue of facilities, the memo lists a hotel, the convention center itself, and a free-standing parking garage. The location and size of a hotel and a hotel developer should be identified, according to the memo.

A location for the expanded center needs to be identified, according to the memo, and the inclusion of athletic facilities should be considered. Aesthetic considerations of the center need to be addressed, the memo says. The size and location of a free-standing parking garage needs to be identified, and the timing of its construction needs to be settled relative to the construction of the convention center building.

Discussions and decisions on the facilities and funding issues could be made “immediately and efficiently,” according to the memo, based on the research and work already done by two steering committees.

The final numbered point in the facilities list is “ownership.” The county board of commissioners wants to form a capital improvement board (CIB), which is enabled by statute Indiana Code 36-10-8. The CIB would own, manage and control the expanded convention center.  Thomas called the CIB a “kind of new wrinkle that we’re bringing into this.” It would be the county commission that forms the CIB and appoints the seven members of the CIB.

The memo asks for a response from the other entities to the commissioners at their “earliest convenience.”

On the question of the appointments to the CIB, Thomas said at Wednesday’s meeting that under the statute, the county board of commissioners had the authority to make all the appointments to the CIB. But she said the commissioners wanted to “make it very clear…that as a board we’re not trying to control this process, and we’re not trying to assert ownership over this.”

Thomas added: “In the spirit of being truly equal partners, … we intend to seek input from the mayor on selections to the capital improvement board.”

Asked by The Beacon after the meeting what advantage a CIB would provide, Thomas said it would clarify the question of who owns the facilities. In one possible scenario, a free-standing parking garage might be constructed on land owned by the county, using funds from the city’s portion of the food and beverage tax. Would the city or the county own that parking garage? A CIB would answer that question, because the CIB would own the parking garage, Thomas said.

Another advantage would be a “fresh start,” Thomas told The Beacon. County and city officials alike have been frustrated by the difficulty they’ve had trying to hammer out a new memorandum of understanding to guide the convention center collaboration in the next phase. The creation of a CIB would in some sense solve that impasse by making the CIB the instrument of future collaboration.

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Monroe County Councilor Shelli Yoder at the council’s July 24, 2019 work session. (Dave Askins/Beacon)

For observers of Monroe County government, Wednesday’s board of commissioner meeting could have prompted some sense of déjà vu. On Tuesday evening at their work session, Monroe’s County councilors batted around the idea of a joint four-way meeting—of the County Council, County Board of Commissioners, Bloomington City Council, and the mayor. The idea of that summit would be to promote better collaboration on the proposed expansion of the convention center.

The president of the County Council, Shelli Yoder, was planning to float the idea to the Board of Commissioners at their work session the following morning, on Wednesday.

Before that happened, the three-member Board of Commissioners, at their regular meeting before the work session, took turns reading aloud their memo to the County Council, City Council and the mayor on the topic of convention center collaboration. The memo was distributed shortly after it was read aloud.

The board’s president, Julie Thomas, told The Beacon after the meeting the commissioners had been working at least a month on the concepts put forward in the memo. She said the convergence of the two groups of county officials on a similar idea had been “kismet.”

When Yoder appeared in front of the board, with the memo in hand, she told commissioners the spirit of the message from the board and the spirit of the county council’s discussion was similar and she was “on board to be able to come together and have these discussion joining with our colleagues at the city.”

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