Chesterton Tribune

 

 

PCCRVC backs pavilion banquet center 7-1; opposition fills Porter County Opera House

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Pavilion Partner principal Chuck Williams explains

banquet center plan as Deb Butterfield looks on.

 

Richard Riley makes the motion to endorse the banquet center

as PCCRVC Executive Director Lorelei Weimer looks on.

 

Herb Read gets a standing ovation from the packed house

as he rises to speak in opposition

 

By JEFF SCHULTZ

The Porter County Convention, Recreation and Visitor Commission, a branch of Porter County Government, passed a resolution 7-1 Thursday in support of both the Dunes Pavilion renovation project and proposed banquet center by Pavilion Partners, LLC, following a two hour forum pitting proponents against opponents.

Jesse Harper was the PCCRVC board’s one “no” vote while board member and Pavilion Partners principal Chuck Williams recused himself.

It was a standing room only crowd at the Memorial Opera House in Valparaiso which seats over 300 people. Comments from both sides were limited to two minutes per person and all were warned that if respect and decorum were not shown, the forum would be stopped.

In opening remarks, PCCRVC President Mitch Peters said that he promised to hold a public discussion due to the Indiana DNR’s “inability” to address points that have come up related to the project.

No one from the DNR participated in the discussion.

Peters did say however he was “saddened in many respects” by “misrepresentation of the facts” over the last few days before giving the floor to Pavilion Partners’ spokesperson Deb Butterfield.

Partners tell plans, impact

Butterfield’s slideshow touted the projected financial benefits the pavilion will bring to local communities and the state. To the Indiana DNR, Pavilion Partners will pay $18,000 a year for lease rent, two percent of gross revenue after the first two years (about $150,000 annually), and provide $100,000 in annual maintenance savings, Butterfield said. The 35-year lease benefit would be about $8.75 million for the DNR, according to Butterfield’s figures.

Using data from the PCCRVC’s recent economic impact study, the banquet center’s projected economic impact by its third year in operation would be $9.3 million to local business, which doesn’t include the direct cost of weddings, Butterfield said.

The Pavilion’s “comfort center” will open next week, Butterfield said, with remodeled restrooms, showers, stalls, and a splash pad.

Next May, renovation on all levels of the Pavilion is expected to be complete, with an ice cream stand, general store, casual dining, Great Lakes craft beer, and new first aid and lifeguard stations on the first floor.

The second floor will contain a yoga room, art studio, dance studio, spa, and fine dining featuring a wine bar and outdoor balcony seating.

The third floor, or the roof, will be a bar and grill restaurant with seating for over 200. It will be suited for events such as birthdays, wedding rehearsals and cooperate events.

Total investment for the Pavilion: $2.7 million.

Pavilion Partners hopes to start construction on the banquet center in spring of 2016 with a completion date of spring 2017.

The building would consist of two floors, 8,500 sq. ft. each, with an open balcony and ADA accessible seating for beachgoers.

Total investment for the banquet center: $4 million.

Butterfield said Pavilion Partners vows to follow all guidelines of the Land and Water Conservation Fund act in regards to the conversion of use from outdoor recreation and the environmental assessments, which prompted some jeering laughs from the crowd.

But Butterfield was resolute and added that Pavilion Partners is carefully addressing concerns regarding light and noise pollution and migratory bird routes.

Other questions Butterfield tried to put to rest were that parking will not be set aside for guests or employees for events and banquets will not be held until after 6 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

She also said that alcohol will not be permitted on the beach, but the state does allow for Pavilion Partners to have a liquor license. Legislation passed this year also allows alcohol to be consumed within 100 feet of the pavilion and parking lot.

A hotel and marina are not part of the plans, she said.

Proponents advocate tourism

While the previous forum at Chesterton Middle School heard two proponents, Thursday’s forum saw nearly a dozen.

Speaking first was President of Lake County’s Tourism Bureau Speros Batistatos who read a letter from the non-profit “Dunes National Parks Association,” which he is a part of. The Association believes that too many visitors to Northwest Indiana are spending little money and leaving while the Pavilion and banquet center will rake in millions of dollars.

Batistatos ended saying, “We’ll be glad to have this in Lake County. We’ll take it any day.”

Next, Chesterton High School 2006 graduate and Porter County Plan Commission member Kyle Yelton said he hoped he could have his wedding next year at the banquet center, but with Pavilion Partners not being able to start construction, the money spent will be spent in southern Indiana instead.

Northwest Indiana Forum CEO and former Duneland Chamber of Commerce President Heather Ennis said she’s “so tired of seeing cars drive from Illinois to Michigan to recreate” and not stopping in Indiana. She said tourism projects like this one will create jobs for local residents and asked the PCCRVC to pass a resolution supporting Pavilion Partners.

Beverly Shores resident Don Babcock and a few others recalled happy times they had visiting the Dunes as youngsters and visiting the Red Lantern restaurant on the beach. Those types of experiences they hope can happen again for new generations.

One “proponent” Larry Bamesberger spoke favorably about having a restaurant at the Dunes but then said he doesn’t support this project in that public input was not taken before the contract was signed and it should be canceled, which drew applause from opponents.

Porter Town Councilwoman Jeannine Virtue, whose husband Scott Virtue is the architect for Pavilion Partners, asserted “there is so much misinformation” and asked for opponents to learn the facts and stop the “hyperbullying.”

“Civility is always the best practice. We can agree to disagree but let’s not kill each other over it,” she said.

There are more proponents out there, she said, but many express fear of saying so.

Opponents speak 

First in line for opponents was longtime Dunes supporter Herb Read whose family helped create the state park.

“If it wasn’t for us, you wouldn’t have anything to brag about,” Read told the board, whose doing-business-as moniker is Indiana Dunes Tourism. The pavilion renovation is not the point of contention for those against the project, the banquet center is, Read said.

Former National Parks employee Norman Hellmers said his 31 year career in tourism has taught him the first rule is don’t compromise your strongest asset.

“If you screw up your primary attraction, then you don’t know a thing about tourism,” he said.

Desi Robertson, an organizer of the Dunes Action group leading the opposition, said that in reference to learning the facts, the public has not had full access to information because “so much has been done behind closed doors.” Her question for the board: Was anyone from the PCCRVC board involved in negotiating any part of the DNR prospectus that began the process for a public/private partnership to renovate the Pavilion.

“The answer is none,” said Peters.

Chesterton resident Pam Rearick said over 4,000 protesters have signed a petition and asked would the tourism board take their views into consideration.

Other comments:

Julie Roesler: This is free land to (Pavilion Partners) that belongs to us.

Gary Brown: This is a sweetheart deal. This is a back door deal. It’s not right to give public land to private interests.

Linda Schwab: A vast majority are drawn to (the Dunes) because of its natural beauty, in short eco-tourism. You’re all missing a huge boat and it’s going to sail away if this thing is built.

Jeffrey Zimmerman: When this project fails, who is going to adopt the orphan child?

Debbie Fray: Nothing about this is positive.

Alcohol on the beach

A repeated concern among speakers was allowing alcohol to be served at the Dunes and on the beach, stressing an increased risk of drownings.

Eric Schlene, who grew up in Jackson Twp. but now lives in West Lafayette, said he asked the DNR Law Enforcement Division for information on citations issued from 2010 to 2014 in Indiana Dunes State Park. Schlene said the data shows that the percentage of infractions related to drugs and alcohol rose from 10 percent in 2010 to over 60 percent in 2014, even though alcohol is banned at the park.

Porter County Alcoholic Beverage Commission member Kenard Taylor said he’s researched the new law (SB 515) passed about the 100-foot rule for alcohol and he feels certain that the DNR will not allow alcohol on the beach.

Questions

The PCCRVC encouraged those who were nervous about speaking to submit questions in writing. Questions will be answered by Pavilion Partners on the PCCRVC’s website, www.indianadunes.com.

PCCRVC attorney David Hollenbeck read aloud questions submitted. A few are:

“After 20 years, is it necessary to have alcohol on the beach?”

“Who will pay for the extra law enforcement now that alcohol is allowed?”

“Where will garbage be disposed of?”

“Will the building disturb migratory birds?”

“Who has lobbied down state to pass the new alcohol law?”

Partners environmental study

In their time to speak, Butterfield, Williams and Virtue took a few minutes to address questions related to environmental impact.

Butterfield said that while efforts will be made to minimize light pollution, there will be some needed to create a safe environment for visitors. Virtue said lights will be LED.

Butterfield reiterated that Pavilion Partners will abide by the LWCF’s rules for conversion of use and a third party will conduct the environmental study. Williams said it will be done by Cardno JFNew.

Vote

The PCCRVC board designated 30 minutes on their agenda to discuss the project themselves but did not deliberate long before Treasurer Richard Riley, of Chesterton, made the motion to support by resolution both the Pavilion renovation and the banquet center.

“Our only job is to increase the amount of tourism in Porter County,” said Riley. “If this project will enhance tourism then we should be for it.”

Seven members voted yes until it came down to Harper, who said that he felt a yes vote would “put the cart before the horse.” While the Pavilion renovation is moving forward, he said he was hesitant as the plans for the banquet center have not been completed.

“I just think it’s the wrong thing at the wrong time,” he said.

Harper did say however that he agrees that there has been bullying on the opposing side and asked for it to halt.

Those voting in favor were (parentheses indicates by which government body they are appointed):

Peters (County Council), Riley (County Commissioner John Evans, R-North), Mike Mantai (Hebron and Kouts town councils), Scott Tuft (Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas), Doug Olson (County Commissioners), Barb Lusco (Portage Mayor James Snyder) and Karen Webster (Portage Mayor James Snyder).

Absent from the meeting was PCCRVC member John Johnson, appointed by former County Commissioner Nancy Adams, R-Center.

The board’s Chesterton-Porter-Burns Harbor seat is currently vacant due to the recent death of member Judy Chaplin.

Harper is appointed by County Commissioner Laura Blaney, D-South. Williams is appointed by the County Commissioners.

 

Posted 7/17/20015

 
 
 
 

 

 

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