Chesterton Tribune



Indiana Senate OKs bill to revive dunes privatization deal

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By The Associated Press

and the Chesterton Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - The stalled privatization deal to bring restaurants, a rooftop bar, and a banquet center to Indiana Dunes State Park could be reinvigorated under a measure which the Indiana Senate approved on Tuesday as part of an omnibus alcohol bill.

That measure would require the Indiana Alcohol Beverage and Tobacco Commission to issue the DNR a three-way permit when it applies for one on behalf of a state park.

The Senate voted 33-17 to pass the omnibus bill one day after a group of environmentalists and local residents delivered to GOP Gov. Mike Pence’s office petitions bearing roughly 10,000 signatures from people opposed to the project.

The bill would allow Pavilion Partners, a group formed by the politically connected Valparaiso developer Chuck Williams, to sell alcohol at the planned beachfront development--something the group says is necessary for the project to be viable--by circumventing the Porter County ABC and the IATC, which both rejected Pavilion Partners’ application for an alcohol permit last year amid opposition from Dunes Action, which said that the decades-long lease amounts to a sell-off of public land that should be free of commercial interests.

“It’s frustrating, disappointing, but not completely surprising,” said Jim Sweeney, a member of the Porter County Izaak Walton League and Dunes Action. “This thing has been greased since the alcohol permit was denied in Porter County. We suspected the developer would be calling in all favors and that if we didn’t succeed we’d run into problems.”

Williams is chair of the State Republican Party 1st District Committee and has donated handsomely to GOP causes. But he has denied allegations that his political connections played a role in the project’s advancement. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources says it followed state and federal laws and did not give Williams preferential treatment in approving the project. “There is no correlation between contributions I made to the local GOP 10 years ago and any legislation pending before the Legislature,” Williams said Tuesday.

The Senate bill is different from a version the House passed, requiring the two chambers to both agree on the changes. If they do, the measure would go to Pence, who will “give careful consideration to any legislation that makes it to his desk,” his spokeswoman Kara Brooks said.

Williams, who hired a lobbying firm to push the bill, has previously said alcohol sales would be necessary to make it profitable for him to rehabilitate the dilapidated Pavilion nestled among the towering dunes that line Lake Michigan. His plan would include two beachfront restaurants, the rooftop bar, and a glass-walled banquet hall offering “the best view in Indiana.”

This isn’t the first time Williams has asked lawmakers for help with the project. Alcohol was previously banned at the park--a prohibition Williams helped turn back with the assistance of northwest Indiana lawmakers in 2012.

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

Emails show Williams pitched the idea and worked with the DNR on a proposal long before it went out to public bid and years before a public meeting was held on the project.

The only competing offer came from a nonprofit group of local conservationists, lawyers and finance professionals.

Shortly after the project was formally announced last March, opponents of the project accused Williams of using political clout to get a sweetheart deal.

Williams has maintained he had “a vision and a passion” to rehabilitate a building that the state has neglected since he was a child. He says he poured money into a project that the state had refused to fund.

Williams’ spokesman, Steve Patterson of the Chicago public relations firm Res Publica Group, told the Chesterton Tribune this morning that, until the bill formally becomes law, he would withhold comment on his client’s 2016 plans, specifically on when the remodeling of the Pavilion might continue and when Pavilion Partners will submit the banquet center’s final design to the DNR. Construction ceased in September, shortly before the IATC upheld the Porter County ABC’s vote.

Sweeney, for his part, voiced the short-term hope today that the bill might still die in conference committee before it gets to Gov. Pence’s desk. But if the bill does make it there, he said, “We will be leaning on the governor to veto it. Allowing booze on the beach at a family-friendly park doesn’t jibe with his ‘family values’ platform.”

Should Gov. Pence sign the bill into law, on the other hand, Sweeney said he expects Dunes Action to continue to oppose construction of the banquet center. What the organization’s strategy going forward might be, however, Sweeney was unable at the moment to say. “Next steps: We need to circle the wagons and powwow to look at which options we have left.”




Posted 3/2/2016




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