Convention center expansion: City councilmembers, county commissioners look to post-Thanksgiving work based on commitment to equal representation

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Excerpt from draft MOU extension, red-lined by the city in spring 2019, for continued work by a nine-person steering committee on the convention center expansion.
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On Nov. 21, 2019, city and county officials met for the third time on the convention center expansion. From left: city councilmembers Susan Sandberg and Dave Rollo; Mayor John Hamilton; county councilor Eric Spoonmore, and county commissioners Julie Tomas and Lee Jones. (Dave Askins/Beacon)

On Thursday night in Bloomington’s city council chambers, city and county elected officials convened their third meeting since mid-September about the convention center expansion .

It was hard for the watching public on Thursday to discern much forward progress for the project. It has been stalled since late May, when a nine-member steering committee made a preliminary site plan and size recommendation.

The project is an expanded 30,000-square-foot exhibit space with a 550-space parking garage. It’s estimated to cost $59 million, of which about $15 million is for a parking garage.

On the question of governance options, Thursday’s meeting established that the mayor is not alone in favoring a 501(c)(3) over a capital improvement board. Two city councilmembers, Isabel Piedmont-Smith and Chris Sturbaum, expressed support for the non-profit option. County commissioners strongly favor a capital improvement board.

So on that issue, it’s possible that opinions are now, after Thursday’s meeting, more clearly divergent than they were before.

But county councilor Trent Deckard told The Beacon he thought the meeting was “incredibly positive,” even if it might be hard to see. A key positive outcome identified by Deckard: “There was a coalescing of views around equal representation.”

By “equal representation” Deckard meant the oral commitments that individual city councilmembers gave, at around the one-hour mark of the meeting. They committed to the idea that the representation on the expansion project’s eventual governing body would be evenly split between the county and the city.

The eventual governing body could be a 501(c)(3) or a capital improvement board.

At least some of the next immediate steps sound like they’ll be pursued by the city council and the county commission, maybe without the mayor’s direct participation.

After Thursday’s session, and after she’d talked with some city councilmembers, commissioner Julie Thomas told The Beacon that she was looking forward to working on the question of governance with the city councilmembers as soon as possible, likely right after the Thanksgiving holiday.

During Thursday’s meeting, after the members of the city council in turn gave their individual assurances that they favored equal representation, Thomas said, “I just want to say thank you all to the city council.” She added that her understanding is that “the legal structure will be worked out through the legislative branches, so I look forward to working on that.”

And at the conclusion of the meeting, Thomas said, “We’ll be in touch with the city council.” Hamilton’s response to Thomas could be analyzed as a gambit to establish that the executive branch of the city will also be a part of the immediate next steps: “We look forward to working with you.”

It has been the city and county’s respective executive branches, the mayor and the three county commissioners, who have been at a kind of impasse on the question of governance of the project since May.

City council president Dave Rollo alluded to the executives as the appropriate parties to the process, when he declined to echo the full-throated endorsement of equal representation that his colleagues had given. Rollo said he was “very uncomfortable” saying anything about the representation when there was not a specific number specified adding, “It’s up to the executives to work it out.”

But the role of the city council in the process was amplified during the meeting with the revelation that before the end of the year. Hamilton is planning ask the council to approve an appropriation ordinance, drawing on food and beverage tax revenues, that will help fund the architect’s design work.

Asked after the meeting by The Beacon why the appropriation ordinance would be coming forward before the end of the year, Hamilton said he wanted to try to give the project some momentum.

The need for the city council’s approval of the appropriation ordinance was something city councilmember Steve Volan was able to leverage during Thursday’s meeting. He suggested that county commissioners might accept the assurance of at least five individual councilmembers (a simple majority) that their vote on the upcoming appropriation would be made on the principle: There should be equal representation for the county on whatever governance board is created.

“That’s not the same thing as a vote, it’s basically the principle under which we would vote. It’s the best we can do tonight,” Volan said.

When the hand-held mic was passed to city councilmember Susan Sandberg to take her turn at an individual affirmation, she said, “I agree to equal representation and I also will be encouraging our mayor to agree to that as well.”

The assurances from councilmembers were enough to persuade county commissioners to allow the meeting to continue to the items that were printed on the agenda. One was a presentation from bond counsel Bruce Donaldson of Barnes & Thornburg about capital improvement boards CIBs and 501(c)(3). The other was a presentation on the two “finalist” site plans (northward versus eastward expansions) from David Greusel, with the project’s architect firm, Convergence Design.

The meeting had begun with a request from county commissioner Lee Jones that the agenda be altered to consider the question of equal representation. Jones reiterated the position of the commissioners, which had been conveyed the day before in a one-sentence letter sent to Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton. The letter stated the only way the project would move forward was with equal representation for the county and the city on the board of whatever governing body was established.

On Thursday night, the county commissioners appeared to indicate the only way the meeting would move forward, to any of its agenda items, was with a publicly stated commitment from the mayor to equal representation.

On a few occasions during the meeting, Hamilton declined to commit to an equal number of appointments on a future governance board, saying that he would not make a decision that night without more advice from his staff. On one of those occasions, it prompted county councilor Kate Wiltz to ask the mayor, “With all due respect, how much more time do you need to get the information you’re looking for?”

Wiltz was alluding to the five months that have elapsed since the commissioners issued a public memo on July 24, calling for better cooperation between the county and the city. It also called for the creation of a capital improvement board to take over the work of the nine-member steering committee.

The county commissioners take the view that the scope of work assigned to the steering committee under a memorandum of understanding between them and Bloomington’s mayor was exhausted with the steering committee’s recommendation made in May.

An initial attempt to draft a revised MOU to extend the steering committee’s work foundered on revisions proposed by the city that struck the phrase “true and equal” as a modifier of the word “partnership.”

At Thursday’s meeting, Wiltz said, “At least at the outset, the wording was ‘true and equal partners,’ and that needs to be honored. And if it’s not going to be honored it’s an insult to the county’s contribution.”

The county’s contribution is, by the county’s calculation, slightly greater than the city’s when projected out over the next 25 years.

Factors considered by the county include its innkeepers tax, starting from 1999 and projected 25 years into the future. That totals around $111 million, based on a county spreadsheet reviewed by The Beacon. One chunk of the innkeepers tax (40 percent) is used to pay the maintenance and debt on the existing facility. Another chunk of the innkeepers tax (60 percent) is allocated to Visit Bloomington for tourism promotion.

The county analyzes the city’s contribution over the 25-year bond period as totaling $81 million for the expanded facility, paid out of the food and beverage tax, and $20.6 million for the parking garage paid out of city TIF revenues.

Based on those totals—$111 million for the county and $101.5 million for the city—the county concludes that the financial contributions to the expansion project are tilted 4–3 in favor of the county.  The ledger balances different if tourism promotion is not counted as a part of the mix. Lopping 60 percent off the innkeepers tax would put the county-city split for governance representation at closer to 2–5.

But county councilor Geoff McKim said on Thursday that he does not think it’s productive to try to tally up who gets credit for what. The important consideration, McKim said, is that both the city and the county have a significant stake.

For some councilmembers, the choice of governance option, capital improvement board versus 501(c)(3), is related to the question of appointments. A capital improvement board (CIB) is defined in state statute as requiring no more than four of its seven seats to be filled by members of the same political party. Both Sturbaum and Piedmont-Smith cited that as a disadvantage of a (CIB) compared to a 501(c)(3), which has no such requirement.

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One thought on “Convention center expansion: City councilmembers, county commissioners look to post-Thanksgiving work based on commitment to equal representation

  1. Is there a possibility for a small representative group of 4 or 6 people who could negotiate? 20 people is too large.

    The county could choose 3 city folks and the city could choose 3 county folks. Let those 6 work this out.

    Maybe be moderated by CJAM or a Judge from a neighboring county?

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