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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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