Consensus on how to advance a stalled attempt to expand the Monroe Convention Center is still eluding elected officials, despite three joint city and county meetings over the past couple months aimed at jump-starting the process.

While questions about financing the project using food and beverage tax dollars — revenue collected as part of a countywide tax applied to residents and visitors’ bills when they dine out — and the overall size of the facility seem mostly resolved, the sticking points that remain include a decision on what type of entity would run the show of designing, constructing and expanding the convention center; its representation; and where to build the facility.

These mires are similar to what stalled the project during the summer and led to the county commissioners’ proposal that city and county elected officials meet to hash it out.

“We are pretty much right where we were in July,” county Commissioner Lee Jones said, adding a bright spot is that they have at least gotten a better grasp on the financial capability to build a $44 million, 60,000-square-foot expanded convention center with a 30,000-square-foot exhibit hall/ballroom on land near the existing convention center, located on the southwest corner of the West Third Street and South College Avenue intersection.

The $44 million estimate includes not only financing for the new facility but renovating the existing center and building an elevated pedestrian bridge connecting the two structures. The plan is to issue a bond, backed primarily the city’s share of the food and beverage tax revenue, to pay for the project.

In addition, for an expanded convention center to be successful, officials also propose building a $15 million parking garage nearby using city tax increment finance money.

One path forward presented

In a memo to elected officials on Monday, Mayor John Hamilton stated the next step should be creating either a capital improvement board or a 501(c)(3) to work on the design, construction and future management of an expanded convention center. He added the city should be the one making majority of the appointments to such an entity.

He justified this by stating the city is putting more resources toward the convention center expansion project. This includes a greater share of the food and beverage tax dollars collected. The city has committed to using its share of food and beverage tax to expand the convention center. The county also receives food and beverage tax dollars, but no commitment has been made so far to spend any of its portion on the convention center project.

However, the county, through a partnership with a Monroe County Convention Center Building Corp., a holding corporation the county created to help issue debt to build the existing convention center and purchase land around it, owns the existing convention center property and much of the nearby land that is needed for either the new expanded facility or proposed complementary structures like a new hotel or parking garage.

But this year the city purchased most of the block just north of the convention center, where the Bunger & Robertson law offices are located, as a possible expansion site, and it also owns a slice of land just south of the current center.

Hamilton sees both the city and county transferring control of their convention center-related properties to the new governing entity designing, building and managing a future expanded convention center.

However, the Monroe County Board of Commissioners oppose the idea that any new governing entity overseeing the project should have a city majority. Monroe County Commissioner Julie Thomas felt the elected officials at their last joint meeting this past week made it clear they wanted equal appointments, regardless of whether it is a capital improvement board or nonprofit.

“And now, the mayor is backtracking on that, and it’s disappointing,” Thomas said Tuesday afternoon.

Hamilton said he addresses the equal appointments concern in the next part of his memo: more city representation on the Monroe County Convention & Visitors Commission. This body oversees the expenditures of the innkeeper’s tax, some of which goes to support the operation of the existing convention center.

Hamilton said officials raised the innkeeper’s tax as an example that the county has more skin in the game and in response thought ensuring city representation on that board was important in maintaining an equal partnership.

The commissioners disagree.

Jones said the makeup of the visitors’ commission is dictated by state law. The county commissioners and the county council both have appointments to that board. For the commissioners, one of their two appointments has to be the director or assistant director of the Indiana Memorial Union hotel. The county council, on the other hand, has to appoint a member that is either a general manager or owns a hotel of more than 40 beds.

“These are not political appointments,” Jones said during the county council meeting Tuesday night.

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