Monday, April 20, 2015
Environment - Protest continues against DNR plans to build banquet center on Dunes State Park prime beachfront
On March 12, 2015 the ILB had its first post on the latest iteration of efforts to commercialize the Indiana Dunes State Park. It was headed "Who approved the stealth project to build a banquet center on Dunes State Park prime beachfront? Who knew?"
A similar Statehouse effort from 2005-2006 was summarized in this June 2, 2006 ILB post. This post from Jan. 25, 2006 looked at issues and the need for an environmental impact assessment, as did this one from Jan. 29, 2006.
This newly located Fall 2006 story by Jeff Fleischer in Chicago Wilderness tells of the 2005-2006 effort and is worth reading.
The story also includes a good photo, taken looking eastward from a vantage point at or beyond the westmost boundary of the Park (where it abuts Johnson's Beach), showing the pristine beachfront and the setting of the Pavilion. Although the actual lakefront of the Indiana Dunes State Park is about four miles long, the only swimming beach is the several hundred foot stretch shown in the photo, ending about where the first wooded area appears. The rest of the narrow Lake Michigan beach in the Park may be walked, but other than that, the park is a nature preserve with the public limited to marked trails and designated camping/picnicking areas. [Correction: According to the DNR brochure, the entire beachfront is only 3 miles long and the State Park is just 2,182 acres.]
On Sunday, April 12, 2015 the ILB had a wrap-up of stories about the most current effort. Now, a week later, there are many new stories, all dateline April 15 or 16, 2015:
- "Meeting on Dunes pavilion draws a full house" by Richard Chambers in the Michigan City News-Dispatch
- "Opponents to Dunes pavilion project pack meeting" by Rob Earnshaw of the NWI Times. Some quotes:
CHESTERTON | The overwhelming majority attending a public meeting Wednesday at Chesterton Middle School didn't like the plan presented, and they let their hosts know it. * * *
Designs for the pavilion include a new concession area and "comfort center" with restrooms, showers and family dressing rooms for beachgoers, which is expected to be ready by Memorial Day.
The next phase tackles the rest of the pavilion, including restaurants, that will begin this summer. The final phase, about a year away, is the elevated banquet center, which would be attached to the east side of the pavilion and allow visitors to pass underneath the building to access the beach.
It's that banquet center that got most of the attendees at the meeting riled up. * * *
Earlier Wednesday the Indiana House approved an alcohol bill, SB 515, that would allow the retail sale of alcohol within 100 feet of the pavilion and the pavilion parking lot, if the lessee or concessionaire applies for and secures the necessary permits. The legislation still has to be approved by the Senate or be revised by a House-Senate conference committee and re-approved by both chambers to go to the governor for his signature or veto. * * *
Nicole Barker, of Save the Dunes, said the group is calling for a halt to the entire project. Like many in attendance, she feels the current design of the banquet center is unappealing and "does not honor our historic pavilion." She said alternatives should be looked at including a no build option or placing the facility elsewhere in the park.
[DNR Deputy Director John Davis] spoke earlier Wednesday to The Times and said what people have seen of what the banquet facility will look like is not a rendering but a massing — a photo imposition of what they think the mass of the building will be. There could be changes.
"It's not fixed," he said.
Bortner said the Indiana Division of Historic Preservation and Archeology wants a clear cut decision that's the banquet center is not the same as the other pavilion.
"You want to honor it but you don't want any confusion that it's part of the original structure," he said.
Davis said the banquet center's two floors will total 17,000-square-feet. The footprint itself will be 8,650 square feet. Davis also said lighting and the potential for bird strikes "are in the conversation" regarding the project.
- "Round 2 of pavilion plan open house brings criticism" by Amy Lavalley of the Gary Post-Tribune. Some quotes:
Plans for a banquet facility at Indiana Dunes State Park are not going anywhere.
Officials with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources made that clear during a meeting with the public Wednesday at Chesterton Middle School, where dozens of people spoke out, mostly against the project, and more than 200 people filled much of the auditorium. Many of them held "no" signs and wore green.
Applause, hoots and cheers punctuated the meeting, as did occasional booing and shout-out responses from the audience. * * *
It's the banquet facility that's raised the ire of the community, including a petition on Change.org with 1,400 signatures against the project and organized opposition through the grassroots Dunes Action Group. Opponents say the structure will cause light and noise pollution, will impact migrating birds, and have questioned what they called a secretive process that led to DNR signing the contract with Pavilion Partners.
The DNR's failed plans to build a hotel at the state park nine years ago, which also drew protests, came up during the meeting.
"We thought you got the message then. We don't want something built there," said Thomas Serynek of Gary. "Why are you not being faithful to your motto, which is, 'Memories made naturally'?"
DNR officials have said they couldn't afford to renovate the pavilion, completed in 1930, without the investment by Pavilion Partners, which also will assume financial risk for the project.
Many of the speakers Wednesday sympathized with the DNR's financial plight, but still pleaded with the agency to either drop the plan for the banquet facility completely or move it to a more remote location in the park.
"I'm not opposed to the DNR. My heart hurts for the DNR," said Chesterton resident Margaret Willis, adding multiple governors have gutted the agency financially. "We are behind you," she said to hoots and applause.
What Willis wasn't behind was the contract with Pavilion Partner, for $18,000 a year for 35 years, with two, 15-year options for renewal. The lease also calls for 2 percent of the banquet's revenue to go back to the state park system's budget.
"Why has the DNR entered into an unfavorable contract with no public input?" she asked, before requesting an email address to send a public records request.
The original request for proposals for the project called for a banquet facility, said Dan Bortner, director of state parks and reservoirs for the DNR, though many in the crowd said they thought that would be part of the pavilion renovation, not a new structure.
Given the constraints Pavilion Partners had to work with for the project, said John Davis, a deputy director with the DNR, officials wanted at least the bare bones of the facility before bringing the plans before the public, or the project would never get off the ground. * * *
The crowd suggested turning to the Regional Development Authority – Porter County pays $3.5 million a year in economic development tax money to the authority – or asking the Porter County Council and Board of Commissioners to use some of the roughly $158 million in proceeds from the 2007 sale of the county hospital to fund the renovation.
"I want to see a better allocation of funds (from the hospital sale) and there's no better one than this," said Richard Whitlow of Valparaiso, going on to ask if the contract with Pavilion Partners could be broken.
Davis said he didn't know if the state could break the contract, and later said local funding was unlikely.
"We doubt we could get money from other government entities," he said, adding he's dealt with the RDA and county governments before. "I've never had a county commissioner say they have a lot of cash."
The crowd responded with a chorus of, "We do!"
- "Pavilion plan meeting draws a crowd" by Kevin Nevers in the Chesterton Tribune. This is by far the longest story. Check it out.