- Indiana lawmakers are looking to breathe life into an embattled
privatization deal that awarded a long-term lease to a well-connected
Republican developer who wants to bring fine dining and a bar to the
Indiana Dunes State Park, which conservationists have fought to keep free
from commercial development for over a century.
businessman Chuck Williams has hired a lobbying firm and is working with
lawmakers to push a bill that would circumvent an October ruling by the
state’s Alcohol and Tobacco Commission, which upheld a local liquor
board’s decision to deny him an alcohol permit.
alcohol sales would be necessary to make it profitable for him to
rehabilitate a dilapidated pavilion in the park nestled among the towering
dunes that line Lake Michigan. His plan would include two beachfront
restaurants, a rooftop bar, and a glass-walled banquet hall offering “the
best view in Indiana.”
The project by
Williams’ Pavilion Partners was opposed by local environmental activists
and others who helped scuttle his bid for the alcohol permit. But GOP
House Speaker Brian Bosma said he hopes Rep. Tom Dermody, who chairs the
House policy committee, will find an equitable way to “bring the committee
dilapidated building there that needs to be built up, and we need to
support the program - whether it is Mr. Williams or somebody else,” said
Dermody, a LaPorte Republican.
The measure by
Rep. Sean Eberhart, R- Shelbyville, would require the ATC to bypass local
liquor control boards and issue an “economic development” alcohol permit
for projects like Williams’ and would retroactively apply to his pending
application before the ATC, which is on appeal. A spokeswoman said
Eberhart was not available to comment Friday.
This isn’t the
first time Williams has asked lawmakers for help. Alcohol was previously
banned at the park - a prohibition Williams helped turn back with the
assistance of northwest Indiana lawmakers, including his neighbor Rep. Ed
Soliday, a Valparaiso Republican who in 2012 sponsored legislation
allowing alcohol sales and consumption.
nearly $1,200 for Soliday’s get-out-the-vote efforts the following
November, according to state records.
The effort by
Williams to renovate the pavilion dates back to the administration of Gov.
For five years,
Williams worked behind the scenes with state Department of Natural
Resources officials, securing the decades-long privatization deal. But
once the project was formally announced last March, it was engulfed in
controversy amid accusations that Williams used political clout to get a
sweetheart deal, working with the state long before the project went out
Williams, a state
Republican Party official, has denied that his political connections
played a role, and the Indiana DNR says it followed state and federal laws
and did not give Williams preferential treatment. Recently updated state
records show that Williams has contributed about $175,000 in office space
and cash donations to GOP causes, a correction to previous state figures
that indicated he had given nearly twice that amount.
If nothing is
done and an alcohol permit is not granted, Williams has said the state
could owe him millions for breaking their contract. Besides, he argues, he
is looking to turn around a building that the state neglected for decades
and has shown little interest in paying to improve.
believe this public-private partnership will benefit the State of Indiana
for many years to come,” Pavilion Partners said in the statement. “We know
there has been a lot of misinformation put out there by certain groups and
we look forward to the opportunity to correct the record and clear up the
confusion that has been caused.”
though, have said the deal raises red flags and amounts to a long-term
give-away of cherished public parkland. They questioned why the state
didn’t seek additional bids on the project. The only competing offer came
from a nonprofit group of local conservationists, lawyers and finance
“The public was
loud and clear about no booze at the park,” said Desi Robertson, of the
group Dunes Action! “Now legislators are trying to reverse that by
changing laws to cut out public input."