Chesterton Tribune



County Tourism seeking more in visitor center lease agreement with Park Service

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Dunes Tourism is still in the process of negotiating a new lease agreement for the Visitor Center with the National Park Service. The current agreement runs out in November.

Tourism Board Attorney David Hollenbeck reported the Board’s plan to create a new agreement where NPS would help cover additional operating expenses for the Visitor Center may not work out due to red tape.

Dunes Tourism Executive Director Lorelei Weimer said negotiations would probably go smoother and faster working directly with NPS, but federal regulations require the lease to go through the General Services Administration, and they’ve delegated the Dunes Tourism lease to the Army Corps of Engineers because they’re overloaded at the moment.

The Visitor Center on Ind. 49 is a joint operation of Dunes Tourism and the National Park Service. The land it’s on is owned by the County Commissioners. 80 percent of the funding for the building was from Federal grants. Both Tourism and NPS gave up independent visitor centers for the current facility, and the way the two entities share daily operations costs and capital expenditures is outlined in a memorandum of understanding.

Hollenbeck said the current lease operates on a “three-bucket” system. NPS pays a base rent and a portion of operating expenses, and contributes to a capital project fund. Since the lease was created, Tourism has discovered that its operational expenses have increased, especially since the Dunes got national park status, and they want NPS to cover more of the operational side.

The Army Corps of Engineers isn’t familiar with the partnership and the need for shared expenses, as Weimer said there is no other partnership like this that they know of.

Hollenbeck said the MOU has been helpful in the process, but Weimer has still had to do a lot of bringing people up to speed on how the partnership came about and how valuable it is. “They were excited when we did this partnership because its unique, but in its uniqueness, there is no precedent,” he said.

“I think if we had another year, we probably could bring closure to this, but time is running out,” Hollenbeck said. If a new lease isn’t in place or the current lease isn’t extended before it runs out in November, NPS will stop paying its share. In the past, NPS has always reimbursed Tourism for lease payments deferred by negotiation, but it’s nonetheless inconvenient to wait for the funds, especially at budget time.

The current proposal is a three-year extension of the lease in place that would phase in a 28-percent increase by the third year. Hollenbeck said he’s shifted focus now from upending the current agreement to getting the Army Corps of Engineers to agree to a one-year extension as opposed to three. He recommended the Board take the three-year extension and 28-percent “if push comes to shove.”

The Board approved Hollenbeck and Weimer to continue negotiations, but to agree to the Army Corps proposed terms if they cannot reach a different agreement by the Board’s next meeting, Oct. 17.

Staff Report

Weimer reported Tourism is trying to fund a $1.6 million redesign of the public space at the Visitor Center by obtaining grants. Since the Indiana Dunes got national park status, the redesign is even more necessary to accommodate more visitors.

Weimer said there is some funding left that was set aside for consultants on the project, and it’s being used to have a consultant come in and refresh the plans for rearranging the space. Not only has visitation increased since the original plans for the redesign, but also changes to the interior space should consider the Native American Trail that is moving forward and planned to begin at the Visitor Center. Weimer said she expects to meet with consultants in October or November and have new plans by February. She also reported Tourism has contracted with a consultant who researches and obtains funding for such projects.

Chesterton High School students and Tourism and Park staff had a good time trying to beat the Guinness World Record for largest field trip at last week’s Dunes Day, though they were just short of having enough students. Weimer reported foreign language classes were at the Visitor Center when some German visitors happened to walk in. “We were able to get them to talk to the German class that was here,” Weimer said. She also noted that Germany is the number one country international Dunes visitors come from.

Promotions Director Dustin Ritchea noted the Chamber Network Night at the Expo Center is Thursday, Oct. 17. The Portage, Valpo, and Duneland Chambers of commerce are all participating. Dunes Tourism will have a tent and partner with the National Park service to celebrate the national park.

Visitation has dropped off a bit since the start of September, but is still up from where it was in 2018. About 8,600 people had been through the Visitor Center this month, at the time of the meeting. Because the Visitor Center has started to see over a thousand visitors per day in the peak season, staff is looking into an automatic counter for the door.

The Innkeeper’s tax collection for August was $154,769.46, a year-to-date increase of 1.4 percent.



Posted 9/24/2019




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