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AP: Committee alcohol move would help Williams' - DNR Dunes privatization deal

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BRIAN SLODYSKO, Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) A stalled privatization deal could be back on track after an Indiana House committee unanimously approved a bill that could allow a Republican Party official and land developer to sell alcohol at a restaurant, bar and banquet center he hopes to build at Indiana Dunes State Park.

The House Public Policy Committee backed the bill by Rep. Sean Eberhart, a Shelbyville Republican, which would require the state Alcohol and Tobacco Commission to issue a liquor sales permit requested by the Department of Natural Resources for vendors located in state parks.

That could allow Valparaiso businessman Chuck Williams of Pavilion Partners to move forward with a plan to rehabilitate a dilapidated pavilion in the park, a project that would include two beachfront restaurants, a rooftop bar, and a glass-walled banquet hall offering "the best view in Indiana."

Williams has said alcohol sales are necessary to be profitable, but last October the ATC agreed with a local liquor board's decision to deny him an alcohol permit, a matter now on appeal. Local environmental activists helped scuttle the permit because they believe his contract with the state, which could last decades, is a sell-off of public land that should be free of commercials interests.

Williams has said the refusal of a liquor permit will break the contract, likely requiring the state to reimburse him.

"Would it address that issue? It could," Eberhart said. "If the (DNR) decides to apply for a liquor permit for the Dunes, then it could impact what happened there."

In a statement, DNR spokesman Marty Benson said the agency "supports the bill as drafted" because "it would allow us to control the consumption and service of alcohol on our park properties." But the DNR declined to say if they would ultimately seek a permit for the Dunes project.

Williams is pushing the bill and, according to state records, has hired the firm Barnes and Thornburg to lobby on issues including alcohol, natural resources, real estate and state government.

A statement issued Thursday by Pavilion Partners did not spell-out future plans and instead lashed out at opponents for presenting "false information to legislators and liquor boards."

The effort by Williams to renovate the pavilion dates back to the administration of Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Emails show that Williams pitched the idea and worked with the DNR on a proposal long before it went out to public bid and years before a formal public hearing was held on the project. The only competing offer came from a nonprofit group of local conservationists, lawyers and finance professionals.

Shortly before the project was formally announced last March, opponents of the project accused Williams of using political clout to get a sweetheart deal, working with the state before the project went out to bid.

Williams, a regional GOP chairman, 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.

Preliminary figures submitted to the DNR by Williams suggested the project is expected to turn a $141,000 profit a figure projected to climb to nearly $500,000 in a decade.

In return, the DNR will get 2 percent of the company's annual revenues and $18,000 a year in rent for the property, which state parks Director Dan Bortner described as having a "million dollar smile," according to state records.

 

Posted 1/28/2016

 
 
 
 

 

 

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