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Tourism chief pitches $210 million in projects, including convention center

Speros Batistatos, South Shore Convention and Visitors Association president and CEO, is pitching a convention center as a replacement for the Radisson Hotel at Star Plaza and Star Plaza Theatre.

Area leaders would rather talk about a new Lake County convention center than pay for it.

Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority President and CEO Bill Hanna has called for a feasibility study to replace the meeting space closing next year with the demolition of the Radisson Hotel at Star Plaza and Star Plaza Theatre in Merrillville.

South Shore Convention and Visitors Association President and CEO Speros Batistatos told local leaders last week a new conference center must be built and financed with a countywide 3 percent food and beverage tax that must be adopted by the Lake County Council.

Lake County Councilman Eldon Strong, R-Crown Point, who supports the feasibility study, rejects a new tax.

“We can’t tax food vendors out of business. I have no problem with a center as long as it doesn’t get into my pocketbook, but I’m not going to vote for a food and beverage tax. I don’t think that turkey is going to fly,” Strong said.

Five of six County Council members reached for comment last week expressed a curiosity about whether there is a market for replacing the meeting space formerly offered by White Lodging, but they have little taste for another tax.

Council President Ted Bilski, D-Hobart, said he is keeping an open mind on whether we need a convention center and, if so, how to finance it. “I thought shame on us if we don’t find out. How do we know we have to adopt a food and beverage tax?” he said.

Councilman Dan Dernulc, R-Crown Point, said he opposes a food and beverage tax the same way he opposed adopting a new tax in the 1990s that would have built a “Planet Park” football stadium for the Chicago Bears. “I don’t think the public should be paying for something like this,” he said.

Councilwoman Christine Cid, D-East Chicago, and Councilmen David Hamm, D-Hammond, and Jamal Washington, D-Merrillville, expressed strong reservations about a new tax.

“I wasn’t in favor of it before because we had the Holiday Star so there was no need for it,” said Lake County Commissioner Gerry Scheub, D-Crown Point. “I just don’t want us to go into something that will cost the taxpayers a lot of money. There should be a lot of talk about this.

“I cannot support a 3 percent (Lake) tax. I don’t think it would be necessary or the best way to raise the funds. I’d like the idea of using a (statewide) gas tax,” Scheub said.

Schererville Town Councilman Jerry Tippy is a Republican challenging Scheub this fall.

“Adding a tax to businesses that are not likely to benefit because they will not be located near a new convention center could cause more harm than good,” Tippy said. “If a prominent member of the business community has determined it is not feasible to rebuild, it’s probably a good idea to take a closer look.

“If we determine that a new convention center will benefit the county, I think it would be better for government to create incentives for private business to make the investment.”

Purdue University Northwest Chancellor Thomas L. Keon argues community leaders should be thinking about a venue that serves more than just the convention crowds.

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“I feel strongly it would be valuable to think about a convention center in the context of an arena because then you can schedule events like the Northwest Indiana Symphony or hockey or the circus or many different kinds of concerts that could make up that difference between when you are not serving that niche market,” Keon said.

What is the way forward?

White Lodging plans to build a new hotel with 215 rooms and 12,000 square feet of meeting space, including an 8,000-square-foot ballroom to host weddings and other large gatherings.

But Batistatos argues more is needed to support a tourism industry that now accounts for an estimated $478 million in annual spending and supports an estimated 15,290 jobs.

“The market analysis, I think, will come back saying clearly, that we don’t have anything that competes with (Grand Wayne Convention Center’s) 210,000 square feet in Fort Wayne, (Century Center’s) 75,000 square feet in South Bend or 70,000 square feet in Tinley Park, Illinois,” Batistatos said. “I believe it will come back, regardless of who is engaged, saying we need something.

“I have said to our hoteliers and others there is a possibility that (Interstate) 65 and U.S. 30 is no longer the center of the convention and meeting universe. Any study, regardless of who commissions it, has got to look at the changed landscape of the last 10 years.

“How does an expanded (South Shore commuter train’s) West Lake corridor or the exits along Interstate I-94 fit into the equation? What does 109th and I-65 look like for the next 30 years?”

“I’d love to see it located in Hammond,” Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said. “I would put it near the Horseshoe Casino. It’s one of the biggest attractions in Northwest Indiana. Just about every mayor would tell you the same and could make a strong case for why it should be in their city.”

“You will see a very interested private sector, which can ultimately decide where it will go,” Batistatos said. “If the county has suitors who want to give us 40 to 45 acres, but that is way down the track.”

Batistatos said his organization has been lobbying for such a tax for 22 years.

“All a Lake County resident has to do is look at the successes of the places we admire in this state and how they paid for it. Fifty percent of the food and beverage tax is ultimately paid by visitors, who you are building the facilities for.”

Batistatos estimates the 3 percent tax would generate more than $200 million in borrowing capacity, of which $80 million could be spent on a convention center, and the rest on tourism-related construction projects throughout the county.

State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, said the General Assembly passed 2015 legislation clarifying RDA’s duties being centered on region transportation, implementing the Marquette Plan to redevelop the Lake Michigan shoreline and “destination” developments.

He said a convention center might fit the “destination” rule, but he worries that expending RDA resources that way may distract from the more important South Shore commuter service improvements.

“I feel strongly it would be valuable to think about a convention center in the context of an arena because then you can schedule events like the Northwest Indiana Symphony or hockey or the circus or many different kinds of concerts that could make up that difference between when you are not serving that niche market.” — Purdue University Northwest Chancellor Thomas L. Keon

“I thought shame on us if we don’t find out. How do we know we have to adopt a food and beverage tax?” — Lake County Council President Ted Bilski, D-Hobart

“We can’t tax food vendors out of business. I have no problem with a center as long as it doesn’t get into my pocketbook, but I’m not going to vote for a food and beverage tax. I don’t think that turkey is going to fly.” — Lake County Councilman Eldon Strong, R-Crown Point

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Lake County Reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.