A bipartisan panel of Hoosier lawmakers agrees that both urgent and long-term funding is needed to prevent further destruction of Portage lakefront visitor amenities and to address Lake Michigan beach erosion in Indiana generally.
But despite hearing nearly four hours of increasingly dire testimony on the issue Wednesday, the General Assembly's Interim Study Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources won't actually be doing anything about it.
The members concluded that legislative rules forbid study committees from taking direct action, even on issues affecting the state's most popular tourist destination, except for adopting policy recommendations for the House and Senate to consider after convening in January.
Portage Mayor John Cannon said that could be too late for the $17 million city-managed lakefront pavilion that's the gateway for many of the 3.6 million annual visitors to the Indiana Dunes National Park.
He noted that beach erosion, rising lake levels and strong storms already have dramatically shrunk the beach, destroyed a concrete walkway to it and toppled a handicap-accessible observation deck.
Now, without $2 million in immediate sand replenishment, the 3,500-square-foot Portage lakefront pavilion could meet the same fate in the next 10 years, Cannon warned.
"We don't have that kind of revenue," he said.
The state budget approved in April by the Republican-controlled Senate included $800,000 to fund Portage sand replenishment and to pay the local share of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study of long-term solutions for eroded Lake Michigan beaches.
However, that money was deleted from House Enrolled Act 1001 in the final budget negotiations among the Senate, the Republican-controlled House and Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, leaving Portage, environmental advocates and Region tourism officials up a creek.
"If we don't address erosion we won't have any dunes to call it the Indiana Dunes," said Natalie Johnson, executive director of Save The Dunes.
While rising lake levels are responsible for much of the Lake Michigan beach loss in recent years, the beaches in Portage, Ogden Dunes and other locations west of the Port of Indiana already were sand-starved due to man-made structures in the lake blocking the natural flow of sand through the water, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
State Rep. Jim Pressel, R-Rolling Prairie, said funding the Army Corps study will lead to solutions for moving sand to where it's needed, and possibly unlocking federal funds to make it happen.
In the meantime, he agreed with Lorelei Weimer, executive director of Indiana Dunes Tourism, that there's too much at stake not to do something immediately, including $480 million in annual economic impact attributable to lakeshore visitors, 5,512 Region jobs, $114 million in wages and $64 million in state and local tax revenue.
"Because of the Indiana Dunes, we're one of the top family destinations in the Midwest," Weimer said. "This is a natural masterpiece that must be protected."
State law permits Holcomb to shift money between accounts in the state budget, or to access cash from Indiana's $2 billion in reserve funds, when the Legislature is not in session.
The governor's office said it is "monitoring both the situation and the study committee" in regards to possibly authorizing spending for Portage sand replenishment or paying for a portion of the Army Corps study on long-term beach erosion solutions.