Convention center expansion deal between Bloomington and Monroe County looks possible by year’s end

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City councilmember Steve Volan (center), is flanked by deputy mayor Mick Renneisen and county commissioner Julie Thomas at Friday’s meeting about the convention center expansion. (Dave Askins/Beacon)

Last Friday, city and county officials met for two hours about the convention center expansion. It was the latest in of a flurry of recent efforts to bridge longstanding disagreements on governance of the project. What entity will have control, direction and eventual ownership of the project—a capital improvement board or a 501(c)(3) non-profit?

Eric Spoonmore, who chaired the meeting as president of the county council, took the temperature of the room by asking about the governance question: “Everyone would be good as long as it’s done before the end of the year, is that accurate?”

It was. But there was optimism, in particular from deputy mayor Mick Renneisen, that the question could get settled sooner than that.

Friday’s session featured some testy moments, but by the end of the meeting, which took place at the Monroe County courthouse, a mood of relief appeared to have settled over attendees. Some specific next steps had been identified related to the roughly $6 million appropriation for architect fees, which will appear on the city council’s Wednesday (Dec. 11) agenda.

As one indication of a lighter mood, the county council’s president, Eric Spoonmore, delivered an unwitting laugh line as he wrapped up his expression of support for his favored governance option: a capital improvement board (CIB): “Let’s just move forward… ”

Spoonmore was interrupted by groans and laughs. Councilmember Steve Volan contorted his arms in faux agony. County councilor Cheryl Munson, seated to Spoonmore’s left told him, “You were perfect until then!”

After the city council’s Wednesday (Dec. 4) meeting, the phrase “move forward” achieved status as an inside running joke in connection with the topic of the convention center expansion. It was at the Dec. 4 meeting of the city council when Volan convinced his colleagues to pass a resolution that patched over one city-county disagreement. That dispute concerned the statutory procedure for the city council to make a request of the food and beverage tax advisory commission (FBTAC).

The city council’s vote on the $6 million appropriation ordinance this coming Wednesday (Dec. 11) will depend on a positive recommendation from FBTAC at its Tuesday (Dec. 10) morning meeting.

Volan, who serves as the city council’s representative on the FBTAC, said at the Dec. 4 city council meeting, “If I could just ban the phrase ‘moving forward’ from everybody over the next few days… I want to be more specific.”

Following Volan was councilmember Jim Sims, who encouraged the council to go ahead and vote on the FBTAC resolution, and thereby solidified the phrase as a kind of joke: “We have more to do on another committee-of-the-whole here in a minute. So can we move forward? Thank you.”

One key point of clarity achieved at Friday’s meeting was the fact that a contract could be signed with the architect for a final design, without specifying a choice of site—northward or eastward expansion. The choice of those two possibilities is a point of disagreement between city and county officials.

President of the county commission, Julie Thomas, said on Friday she was keen to have writing that Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, would not “unilaterally” sign a contract with the architect for final design. It’s the city that signed the contract with Convergence Design for the initial preliminary design and public engagement process that was done earlier this spring.

Hamilton did not attend Friday’s meeting. Deputy mayor Mick Renneisen said he couldn’t, on the mayor’s behalf, make the commitment that Thomas wanted. Renneisen said he wanted it to be understood that the county was asking to be a signatory on a design contract for a $59-million construction project, that would be funded from the city’s share of the food and beverage tax and city TIF revenue.

County attorney, Margie Rice, replied that the county understands what it is asking, adding that the city and the county are both “mutually necessary” for the project.

Given that mutual necessity, Renneisen said he hoped that the county would be receptive to having some city control of the millions of dollars a year in revenue from the county’s innkeeper’s tax. It’s the innkeeper’s tax that feeds into the operations of the current convention center and will continue for the newly expanded one. Rice told Renneisen that the county is receptive to that—as long as it doesn’t contradict the state statute on the appointments to the five-member convention and visitor’s commission (CVC).

Volan framed the issue as a need to have a partnership on the operations side of the expanded center as well as the capital side.

What are the next steps?

The appropriation ordinance for the architect fees is on a path that likely includes an amendment to the city’s request to FBTAC, which meets Tuesday. The amendment would reflect the sort of assurance given in the city council’s Dec. 4 resolution about not expending funds until a governing entity can assume the design contract. A similar amendment is expected for the city council’s Dec. 4 appropriation ordinance.

With the appropriation ordinance on a path to approval, that gives the city and county the chance to focus on the governance question. The county council has a meeting scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 10, when it could resuscitate a draft resolution on governance that councilor Cheryl Munson had floated previously. It expresses support for a CIB.

At Friday’s meeting, Spoonmore said the resolution would likely undergo some edits before Tuesday.

Based on communications from the city, if the CIB option is used, instead of a 501(c)(3), the city is keen to have the city’s appointments to the seven-member body be made by the executive branch not the legislative branches. At Friday’s meeting, Renneisen said the city is willing to accept a 3–3–1 arrangement, where the city and the county each appoint three members and the seventh is chosen by the first six.

An additional point, which the county council’s resolution on Tuesday might address, is the statutory requirement that a controller for the CIB be named. The city would like the the city’s controller to be named as the CIB’s controller. The city could also like an oversight roll for the the CIB’s budget that is parallel with the county council’s, which is specified in the CIB statute.


Potential Convention Center Expansion Timeline

Here’s a partial timeline of some events that have happened recently and could happen soon.

  • Wednesday (Dec. 4) morning. Monroe County Board of Commissioners. Commissioners give a response to Bloomington mayor John Hamilton’s Dec. 3 letter committing to equal representation. [Link to: Statement read aloud by commissioners at Wednesday’s regular meeting. Link to: Formal Dec. 4 Letter]
  • Wednesday (Dec. 4) morning. Monroe County Board of Commissioners. A first reading for an ordinance to create a capital improvement board was given. No vote was taken. [Link to: Ordinance introduced at first reading at Wednesday’s regular meeting.]
  • Wednesday (Dec. 4) evening. Bloomington City Council. An appropriation ordinance is given first reading, but immediately postponed to Dec. 11. A resolution is passed making a specific dollar-amount request of the FBTAC for a recommendation on food and beverage expenditures. [Link to: City Council’s Dec. 4 resolution with request to FBTAC]
  • Thursday (Dec. 5). Mayor of Bloomington and City Council. Mayor Hamilton and city council president Dave Rollo send a letter to all the parties. The city releases a memo from city staff to the mayor. [Link to: Hamilton and Rollo’s Dec. 5 letter to all parties  Link to: City staff’s Dec. 5 memo to mayor]
  • Friday (Dec. 6) afternoon. Monroe County Council and County Commissioners. This meeting took place and was attended by city councilmember Steve Volan and deputy mayor Mick Renneisen.
  • Tuesday (Dec. 10) morning. Food and Beverage Tax Advisory Commission. The FBTA will consider the city council’s new resolution that makes a request, and will likely approve a recommendation for a total $6 million expenditure for architectural fees.
  • Tuesday (Dec. 10) morning. County Council.  The county council will likely weigh in on the governance question by approved an edited version of a draft resolution expressing support for a CIB.
  • Wednesday (Dec. 11) morning. Monroe County Board of Commissioners. Commissioners could act on a CIB ordinance or some interlocal agreement on governance. But action on a CIB would be unlikely unless it’s clear that the action has support from the city’s side.
  • Wednesday (Dec. 11) evening. Bloomington City Council. The council could approve the appropriation ordinance for a total of $6 million in food and beverage tax money.

Spoonmore’s “move forward” moment

Here’s the extended quote from county councilor Eric Spoonmore on the topic of moving forward with a CIB as the governance option, which was “perfect,” according to councilor Cheryl Munson, up to the point when he said, “move forward.”

Just to reaffirm my support of the CIB as an option, it’s not that I think the non-profit is a bad option or a dumb idea or anything like that, it’s just that this the CIB is really the only true option that has been presented at this point, so we still don’t know what a non-profit 501(c)(3) would look like, we know absolutely what a CIB would look like. And I think this is the fastest pathway forward to making real progress on this critical decision of governance. And we know that this is going to be a determination, a big factor of how we move forward. And there is real desire. I know that the county council is under immense pressure for us to see visible progress on the convention center. I know the public is getting impatient with this. I’m getting all the emails, I’m getting the phone calls, and I hear it. I’m just asking for people to be patient with us for just a little bit longer, bear with us, we’re very close I think to getting a deal done on this. And I do believe that a CIB is the quickest way that we can get moving forward. … This is my fifth convention center meeting this week, we’ve gone on for two hours here. This to me is just absurd. It is so absurd. You think about back in 1787, the founding fathers of this country got together and created a little governance plan called the Constitution, and they got together and did it in less than four months, and here we are. And they did that for the greatest, most prosperous nation in the history of the world. And here we are, it takes two freaking years to figure out the governance of a convention center in Bloomington, Indiana, are you kidding me? This is ridiculous. Let’s just move forward …

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