Chesterton Tribune

No bidders for Dunes State Park beachfront hotel

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By VICKI URBANIK

No developers submitted a proposal to build a hotel at the Indiana Dunes State Park by Wednesday’s deadline, prompting the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to announce a “restart” of the process.

DNR Director Kyle Hupfer attributed the lack of interest among developers as a timing issue, saying that developers may have other projects in the pipeline or concerns about interest rates or other reasons for not submitting a plan.

“I think it’s a timing issue and finding a developer at the right time,” he said.

But at least one opponent suspects that public opposition may have played at least some role. Duneland First and the Save the Dunes Council both have mounted a public campaign against the hotel, and a host of groups, ranging from the Hoosier Environmental Council to the Calumet Astronomic Society, all took stands against the DNR’s plan.

Duneland First’s Laura DeSousa said the public outcry may have made developers realize that building a hotel in the dunes is a “political hot potato.”

Despite the lack of proposals by Wednesday’s deadline, the silent protest organized by Duneland First for tonight is still taking place, at about 7:30 p.m. at the northernmost parking lot where the DNR proposed building the inn.

“We know the fight isn’t over. We need to be vigilant,” DeSousa said.

Hupfer said this morning that he will not extend the deadline for developers to submit proposals, but will instead order a high-level financial analysis to see how viable it would be for the state to build and operate the hotel itself, rather than a privatized facility as originally proposed.

“This is a restart of the process,” he said.

The DNR built and operates the inns currently at six state parks. The inn at the Monroe State Reservoir, on the other hand, was built and is operated privately. At the Dunes State Park, the DNR sought a private vendor who would build and operate the inn, paying property taxes on the structure and an annual lease payment to the DNR for use of the land.

The fiscal analysis will address how much a Dunes State Park inn would cost and how much it might generate. “We know intuitively that it would be successful,” Hupfer said. Given the heavy visitation at the Dunes State Park, “we have little doubt that it would have a high level of occupancy.”

Hupfer said once the fiscal analysis is done, the DNR will have several options: Either build and operate the inn itself, put out another request for proposals for a privatized inn, engage in advance discussions with hotel developers about the concept before going forward, or putting the idea temporarily on hold if the timing doesn’t look good.

But regardless of what option the DNR eventually takes, Hupfer said the DNR still supports an inn at the Dunes State Park.

“We think an expansion of the inn system is needed,” he said.

Reaction

Weeks ago, Duneland First announced that it would hold a silent protest tonight against the hotel at sunset. The protest will still go on, except that it will be a “protest of happiness,” DeSousa said.

She is still hoping for a huge public turnout, saying that it will be important to send a “big message” to Gov. Mitch Daniels that there is strong and widespread public support for protecting the dunes.

“It’s more than just a few tree huggers. There’s a lot of people here interested in the future of the dunes,” she said.

DeSousa said she was surprised by the lack of proposals, fully expecting them to come in at the last minute. She said that in addition to the public opposition, potential developers may have felt the inn “won’t be quite as profitable as Kyle Hupfer believed.”

Location

Despite the opposition, Hupfer maintains that a Dunes State Park inn has much support. He cited the destination audit conducted by the Porter County Convention, Recreation and Visitor Commission that supported a state park inn as one way to promote tourism and economic development.

However, that audit also states that the inn should be away from the beach. And more recently, the PCCRVC Board came out against the DNR’s current position of building the inn so close to the beach.

Hupfer disputes that the proposed site—on the northernmost parking lot west of the state park pavilion—is actually on the beach. “It’s well off the beach,” he said, adding that the DNR purposely avoided proposing the inn on the footprint of the previous inn since it was directly on the beach.

When asked if the DNR would support building a hotel at a different site in the state park, Hupfer said he’s open to suggestions, but that he’s not sure where else in the park an inn could feasibly be built. He said the preferred site may end up the most viable location.

He noted that the DNR made a commitment not to build an inn on undisturbed land and that much of the state park is in a dedicated nature preserve that cannot be touched.

He also said people who vacation in Florida don’t want to stay at a hotel away from the ocean, but that they come to Florida to experience the beach atmosphere.

Asked if Duneland First would support a hotel if it were at a different location, DeSousa said it all depends on what is being proposed, the size of the facility, environmental impacts and other factors. She said a hotel could be built on a much smaller scale, though she added that a smaller facility won’t necessarily translate to public support, at least not from Duneland First.

“Maybe we would support something. Maybe we won’t. We’d have to wait and see,” she said.

Timeframe?

Hupfer said he doesn’t know how long a fiscal analysis for a state-run Dunes State Park inn would take and that he isn’t putting a deadline to the study, since there is “no time pressure.”

If the DNR opts to build an inn itself, it would probably be like the other state park inns. Bond issues funded the initial construction of the facilities. The revenues through inn operations are used to pay off the bonds, as well as operating expenses including DNR staff. “They are profitable,” he said of the state-run inns.

Such a bond would likely be issued through the Indiana Finance Authority. Unless the DNR was seeking direct state funding, no legislative action would be needed, Hupfer said.

Hupfer also said the DNR will likely hold a public forum on the issue before deciding how to proceed. The DNR did not hold a public input session before announcing its plans this year, though Hupfer was the guest speaker at an informational meeting on the topic hosted by the Save the Dunes Council.

When asked if the DNR will hope to change people’s minds about the inn through a public forum, Hupfer said he won’t pretend to have such influence. He said hotel opponents have been opposed to any new developments in the park. He cited as an example the opposition against the state park’s Nature Center years ago.

“I don’t know if we can change the minds of the folks who want the park for themselves,” he said.

 

Posted 6/1/2006

 

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