MERRILLVILLE — Town leaders are focused on bringing a convention center to Merrillville, and they are willing to pursue a food and beverage tax to help make that happen.
Tri-Land Properties, the owner of the Century Plaza site near U.S. 30 and Broadway, has been developing plans to transform the former Burlington Coat Factory into a 140,000-square-foot convention center.
Besides the former Burlington Coat Factory building, there are pads available at Century Plaza for hotels. The site also could accommodate several new restaurants.
The estimated investment would be significant to redevelop the property, and the total cost could vary depending on the scope of the project.
“It’s $50 million for the convention center, it’s $150 million when you put the hotels and the restaurants in,” Tri-Land Properties President Richard Dube said of the potential investment.
There are several decisions that have yet to be made about the possible development, including how it will be funded.
Tri-Land is seeking a public-private partnership, and that led to Town Council members discussing a possible 1% food and beverage tax in Merrillville.
“This would be used for economic development purposes, which could include things out at Century (Plaza),” Councilman Shawn Pettit said.
Town Councilman Richard Hardaway said the city of Gary is working with State Rep. Vernon Smith for a food and beverage tax in Gary.
That prompted the Merrillville Town Council on Tuesday to approve a resolution supporting state legislation that would authorize the tax in the two communities.
“I think this is well overdue,” Pettit said.
Hardaway said if Merrillville wants to see the potential legislation considered this session, the town must act quickly to seek support of the tax.
Pettit, a board member of the Crossroads Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he will approach the town’s business community about the proposal.
“This needs to be taken care of,” he said of the food and beverage tax.
Pettit said town officials last year started exploring the possibility of enacting the tax in Merrillville.
That came after the Lake County Council passed on a requested $75 million incentive for a massive redevelopment project once proposed by White Lodging for the former Radisson Hotel site.
That incentive would have been paid for with a new 1% food and beverage tax on restaurant meals in Lake County.
Pettit believes the lack of a county-wide food and beverage tax is a “joke,” and it’s what led to White Lodging’s decision to no longer pursue the $356 million redevelopment project it once envisioned for Merrillville.
Pettit said he’s “on board” with Tri-Land’s proposal, and he’s willing to explore other funding sources for a possible incentive for the development.
That would include pursuing a bond issue from the town’s Broadway tax increment financing district.
“I’d sign a $5 million bond issue right now, without hesitation,” Pettit said.
If Merrillville chooses that option, the debt could be repaid with the increment produced by the convention center.
Besides the funding sources for the project, Pettit said he also wants to know when construction could begin and who would be operating the convention center.
Although the town hasn’t yet received answers to those questions, work is underway to produce more details about the project.
Tri-Land is expected to complete an economic impact analysis for the development. Once finished, the company is expected to meet again with town officials to continue discussions about the project.
Dube on Tuesday said he is unsure how long it will take to complete the economic impact analysis.
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