Chesterton Tribune



Pavilion plan meeting draws a crowd

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They came loaded for bear.

They were organized, eloquent, and informed. Their questions were probing, their comments apt.

And they were passionate, to the point--on occasion--of being rude. There were hoots from the audience and heckles. DNR Director of State Parks Dan Bortner, interrupted while answering a question--by someone complaining that he was monopolizing the time--seemed positively befuddled. “If I get asked a question, do you want me to answer it, yes or no?”

Opposition to the banquet center was nearly unanimous. Of the 50 or so who spoke at the two-and-a-half-hour session--each given two minutes--only two, the first two at the microphone, voiced their support for the project.

The DNR promised, in scheduling this session--hard on the heels of an unsuccessful open house on April 6--that some of the questions which have been dogging the project from the beginning would be answered. And many of them were, in fact, although probably no one liked the answers:

*Why was there no public input solicited before the lease was signed with Pavilion Partners LLC? Davis was blunt: “We felt we would never get to that”--an inked contract--“if we started out with public meetings.” Bortner added, “We don’t allow public hearings (on concession agreements). We can’t manage by committee.”

*Was an environmental impact study--or something similar--ever conducted before approval to the banquet center was given? Davis, in a short presentation given before the Q/A, said that the DNR did apply to the Division of Water for a permit to construct in a floodway. No such permit was needed, the Division of Water concluded. “It’s not in a floodway.” But the application itself “carried with it an environmental assessment,” Davis said. “We did that. They had little to say.”

*Is there a contingency plan in the event of the business venture’s failing? Was Pavilion Partners required to post a bond? Should the LLC go belly up, the DNR would take possession of “all the improvements that are done,” Davis said. “Other than that, we hope this doesn’t fail. No bonds are involved in this.”

*Why was the not-for-profit proposal, submitted by a local group, rejected? That proposal depended on grant moneys to fund the rehab of the Pavilion, Davis said. “That sounded like a long, long process and there was no guarantee that it would ever be done.” The DNR, for its own part, doesn’t have the resources to rehab the Pavilion itself. “So we have someone else do this, someone else assume the risk. And there is a risk.”

*What provisions does the design of the banquet center make to protect migrating birds, reduce nighttime lighting, and control noise? At this point, no specific provisions have been made, other than recognizing that the environmental impact of the banquet center is a great concern to many. “That’s one of the issues in conversation now,” Davis said. “That’s one of the things we’re working on.”

*Will guests of the banquet center get special parking privileges? “No,” Davis said. “And that’s a real challenge for the developer.”

*Given the fact that the Pavilion has been unused for so long, what’s the hurry? “I’ve watched these buildings fall down,” Davis said. “The Pavilion reminds me of a building (at another state park) that’s a few months away from the yellow tape.”

*Why, more to the point, is the lease agreement dated Feb. 22, 2015, marked, by hand, “RUSH”? Because, Bortner said, there is a rush: demo needed to start on the Pavilion and construction commenced in order to have the restroom facilities open in time for the summer beach season.

If Davis and Bortner had any message at all, it was this: The DNR is absolutely desirous of continuing the conversation--the April 6 open house and Wednesday’s Q/A are only “the beginning of the process,” Davis said--and very much seeks the public’s input on the design of the banquet center. Which will, however, be built.

‘An Evil Trade’

The DNR was not the only party to the lease contract to take a licking on Wednesday.

Pavilion Partners--principals Chuck Williams, the Valpo businessman and a prominent Republican; Tom Collins Jr., senior vice-president of Luke Oil; and Peter Kaiafas, operator of a Lake County banquet hall--came under a withering crossfire.

Kevin Cornett called the LLC’s business plan “shaky at best,” suggested that “it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” and noted that the lease contract itself imposes conditions on the venture which may be setting Pavilion Partners up for failure. “You’re right,” Davis replied. “There are constraints on the business plan.”

Gary Brown: “I vehemently oppose free land to developers with sticky fingers.”

Ascher Yates: “It’s going to be a boondoggle.”

Charlotte Read: “it will be a burden for anybody not making money off it.”

Debbie Fray: “Are we operating on data or are we operating on what we think might happen? This is ill advised. We don’t know enough. We’re leaping into a project we have no idea what the consequence will be.”

Jon Granat: “They’re not going to make dollar one on the banquet center. It’s going to be boycotted because you’ve slapped us in the face.”

Nancy Muldenauer: “A select moneyed few will be able to use this facility. I don’t think we should be building things for parties.”

Brian Williams, reaching the conclusion that the DNR’s commitment to a banquet center built is adamantine and inflexible, suggested instead that the smart move might be to “make it unpleasant enough for (Pavilion Partners) to walk away from this project.” Williams owns the building on Lincolnway in Valpo home to Buffalo Wild Wings. Luke Oil owns County Line Orchard. “I think maybe the pressure needs to rest somewhere else.”

Desi Robertson wanted to know whether the DNR had done its due diligence on the bonafides of the LLC’s principals. Because it was her understanding that one of Williams’ ventures “went belly up and had to be bailed out,” while the Strongbow Inn “closed down after it was bought by Luke Oil.” Robertson was bemused as well by Williams’ reputation as a preserver of historic buildings. “Is Buffalo Wild Wings the DNR’s example of sensitive historic preservation?”

Rich Whitlow was curious about the lease itself. Can the contract be broken and at what expense? Davis didn’t offhand know the answer.

For Margaret Willis the lease comes down to filthy lucre. “This contract is a poor trade, an evil trade, of a previously protected beach area for a very one-sided contract with profiteers and a blight on our beach. . . . Nowhwere in this county, likely not in the entire state, could a concessionaire get such a favorable deal for access to such a unique and valuable site.”

Other Issues

Meanwhile, some opponents were struck by the DNR’s stated purpose of starting an ongoing “dialogue” about the design of the banquet center, as though the architect might somehow hit on a look that would somehow make the building okay. “You say you’re looking at this,” Carol Biel said. “But that doesn’t equal a solution. And I don’t get the impression that this conversation is part of the solution.”

Or as Mary Fulghum put it, “Dismissing criticism isn’t in the best interests of the state.”

There were two separate suggestions for alternate ways of funding the Pavilion’s rehab. Jim Sweeney of the Izaak Walton League pointed to $25 million earmarked for the construction of a new inn at Potato Creek State Park, for which as of a week ago the DNR “hasn’t had a single bid.”

Rich Whitlow floated two other possible sources: the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority; and the proceeds of the Porter Memorial Hospital sale. Instead of private/public partnership, he said, “why not a government/government” deal?

Nicole Barker, executive director of Save the Dunes, returned to the issue of transparency, or the lack of it. “We were robbed of the ability to give input,” she said, then urged the DNR to “immediately identify a public process” and hit restart. Bortner’s response: this is the public process. “It’ll be the fall before we get to the banquet center,” he said. “The idea here was to tell us what the building should be like.” There were some catcalls at that.

In any case, Davis said, construction will continue. “This is the beginning of the process. But no, we’re not going to stop building the bathrooms. The bathrooms are going to be done and the Pavilion.”

There was no lack of comment either on the preliminary design of the banquet center, as shown by an artist’s rendering released at the April 6 open house (although Davis and Bortner did make the point several times that the design is not set in stone and will not be finalized until the fall. Mary Fulghum: “The glass shoe box looks like a wart stuck on a grand old lady’s face.” Gina Darnell: “This is a big empty box.” Barbara Mathews: “The design is lackluster at best.”

A Few More Comments

Jim Banach: “This is a desecration of the Dunes. Indiana’s been in the press a lot for being backward.”

Herb Read: The perspective in the artist’s rendering of the banquet center--which will constitute “a serious interference with the lakeview”--is “distorted.” And “distortion is akin to a lie.”

Kevin Cornett: “Eventually (Gov.) Pence’s reign of terror will be over and hopefully we’ll have an administration that fully funds the DNR. But we’ll still be stuck with this for life.”

Thomas Serynek: “When you wanted to build a hotel, we thought you got the message that nobody wanted their view blocked.”

Arlene Fekete: “I don’t expect a state park to provide me a nice place to have dinner or a banquet hall to rent. I expect a state park to protect nature.”

Two in Support

Two persons did speak in favor of the project. Kenard Taylor, executive director of the Porter County Republican Party, stated his position for the record: “Overall I’m very much in favor of this project.” On the other hand, the artist’s rendering of the banquet center he found unappealing. “It does seem to stick out like a sore thumb,” Taylor said.

Cheryl Evans also expressed her support--and her fear that opponents of the project were motivated by the desire “to keep people out of the park.”


Posted 4/16/2015




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