Time and Money: Agenda for Monday’s convention center expansion meeting

Cropped Convention Center Screen Shot 2019-09-15 at 7.20.04 PM
Aerial view from the east of Monroe County Convention Center at 3rd Street and College Avenue from the county’s GIS system Pictometry tool

Circulating late last week among area elected officials and community leaders was an agenda for a 5:30 p.m. Monday meeting.

The topic of the meeting is a planned expansion of the convention center located on the southwest corner of 3rd Street and College Avenue in downtown Bloomington.  It’s a topic with a history that’s a couple decades long, maybe longer.

Monday’s meeting includes 20 elected officials representing four entities: Monroe County’s county council, Bloomington’s city council, Monroe County’s board of commissioners, and the mayor of Bloomington.

A single substantive matter dominates the night’s schedule—funding for the expansion of the convention center. The topic of funding is divided into parts: construction and operations.

A steering committee has guided work on the convention center expansion project up to now. Possibly weighing on some minds during Monday’s session will be the words of a design consultant at a May 23, 2019 meeting of the steering committee: “[F]rom inflation alone, every month that we don’t get started on this project is 333 square feet we’re not going to be able to afford to build.”

For construction funding, the agenda gives 10 minutes to the City of Bloomington’s financial advisor and bond counsel, Barnes & Thornburg and Krohn & Associates, to present various funding options.

For operations funding, Monroe County councilor Cheryl Munson, who has served on the expansion project’s steering committee, will have five minutes to present financial information.

The Food & Beverage Tax Advisory Commission voted on Jan. 22 to recommend approval of up to $4 million in expenditures from the tax for convention center expansion architectural fees. The figure is based on 10 percent of construction costs, which would make for a $40-million project.

A vote of the steering committee on May 23 took a 40,000-square foot expansion off the table, leaving in play an option with 30,000 square feet. Described in the slide deck for that meeting was a total cost of the 30,000 square foot proposal, including a parking garage, that came to around $59 million.

On Monday, the first hurdle that the group of elected officials will need to clear comes right after the start. The honor of calling the meeting to order will go to president of Monroe County’s board of commissioners, Julie Thomas. It reflects the fact that it was the three county commissioners who distributed a memo in late July that called on elected leaders to come together to figure out the next steps. The July memo also called for the creation of a capital improvement board.

After Monday’s meeting is called to order, the group is supposed to “establish guidelines for the meeting.” The item is clarified on the agenda to mean that attendees are “to set time limit for individual comments.” Acting as timekeeper, according to the agenda, will be city councilmember Steve Volan. As the council’s parliamentarian Volan brings some experience to bear on that role.

For their budget hearings last month, the administration and the city council adopted cumulative time limits for presentations and question periods. One issue that Monday’s meeting attendees could discuss is whether the time limits will apply cumulatively for agenda sections or to individual elected officials.

No time for public comment is included on the agenda.

The city council has a special meeting scheduled to follow the convention center meeting.  So city councilmembers might not be keen to see the convention center meeting last more than an hour and a half or so. Thomas told The Beacon that she thinks the convention center meeting should wrap up in about 90 minutes.

Friction between the three-member county board of commissioners and Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton—related to the county and city’s continued collaboration on the convention center expansion—is at the center of Monday’s meeting of 20 elected officials.

How fast city and county officials can agree on speaking time limits for the rest of Monday’s meeting could be an indicator of how smooth the collaboration will be in the next several months.

The friction stems in part from different views on the status of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that lays out parameters for the working relationship between the city and the county and the role of a steering committee on the expansion project.

Thomas said at a meeting of the steering committee on May 23 that she considers the committee to be “officially disbanded.” Thomas said, “We’ve come to the end of what that MOU covers.”  The MOU states as the committee’s one duty that it will “review, recommend, and oversee the selection and work of the architect for the project.” Convergence/Schmidt Associates was selected as the architect in December 2018. The firm concluded some design charrettes earlier this year on April 18.

At the May committee meeting, the City of Bloomington’s corporation counsel, Phillipa Guthrie, said that the only thing that “went away” from the existing MOU was the selection of the architect. All the other provisions of the MOU, about how the various entities would deal with each other, were still in place, Guthrie said.

In any case, the city and county have been trying, without success, to forge a new MOU. At the May 23 steering committee meeting, county councilor Cheryl Munson said she was not privy to MOU drafts that were being traded back and forth between the mayor’s office and the county commissioners. But Munson believed the sticking point was a failure to agree about of the equal nature of the partnership. Thomas replied that it was one reason.

Thomas said, “We want to be true and equal partners and that keeps getting struck from the language—I’m not sure why. And we’d like to get a project manager from the outside to work on this to connect and communicate with both the city and the county simultaneously.”

One reason the partnership on the convention center expansion is not seen by some on the city’s side as a literal “equal” partnership is due to the major source of funding for the convention center expansion—the Food & Beverage Tax. The tax, which has been collected since early 2018, generates around 90 percent of its revenue inside the city. The 90-10 split has been agreed on until the county auditor can make it more precise. For 2018, about $2.56 million was collected. Of that amount, about $2.25 million went to the city and $312,000 went to the county.

R Bar Chart of Food & Beverage Tax

Some additional insight into the city and county’s lack of consensus on the mechanism for moving forward in recent months was provided at the most recent meeting of the Food and Beverage Tax Advisory Commission, on Aug. 27, 2019.

About the meeting of the twenty elected officials, county commissioner Lee Jones said, “[T]he reason the commissioners proposed this way of moving forward is because—many of you may remember that during the spring there was a bit of disruption in the commissioners—for a little while we only had two of us. The person who is no longer with us was the person who was actually working with the convention center on all the committees and…knew what was going on.”

Jones was referring to Amanda Barge, who resigned as a county commissioner and suspended her mayoral campaign after the Indiana Daily Student reported allegations of sexual harassment by Barge of a county contractor.

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