This mess started with a good idea.
By any measure, the Indiana Dunes State Park is one this state’s most extraordinary public assets. Located on Lake Michigan, in a landscape where the science of ecology was born, the park is one of the state’s most popular public destinations — it was recently named one of the top ten state parks in the nation by USA Today.
It is also about to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Maybe that’s why the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the agency that oversees state parks, finally decided to rehab the park’s old pavilion building.
That building dates back to 1930. It’s a wonderful old deco structure, built in a time when public architecture seemed to have a knack for making people who used it feel special, like they were being transported out of their everyday lives to a place where better things might be possible.
Over the years, though, the DNR neglected the building for lack of funds, allowing it to fall into disrepair.
So the news a few years back that the DNR wanted to partner with someone to rejuvenate the pavilion was welcome. This, however, would be a “public-private” partnership, a type favored by Indiana politicos, wherein public resources are made available for private profit.
Such partnerships allow Indiana to brag about its low taxes — a good thing given the state’s low level of average household income. But I digress.
The DNR put out a call for proposals. But, it claims, there were only two respondents worth considering. One of those, a group calling itself Pavilion Partners LLC, won.
This group, which includes a fellow named Chuck Williams, a former chairman of the Porter County Republican Party and member of the Indiana Dunes Tourism board, was willing to put up several million dollars to make things happen. This meant no tax dollars would be needed — the kind of deal Hoosier state government types have been conditioned to consider sweet.
But Pavilion Partners isn’t interested in just fixing up the pavilion. They also want to build a conference center on an empty lot next door. They get a 35-year lease with two 15-year renewal options.
In exchange, the state gets $18,000 a year and two percent of gross sales.
People in Northwest Indiana are not apathetic when it comes to the Dunes.
They’ve spent 100 years fighting to save this landscape, and many of them take it personally when bureaucrats and developers look at the lakeshore and see nothing but dollar signs.
People here were disgusted by the clueless, seemingly computer-generated renderings they saw of the proposed conference center. Many objected to turning a public treasure into a private business. Most of all, they were outraged by the high-handed way the DNR went about making this deal.
Work had already begun on the pavilion when a public meeting was held April 6. But this meeting was “an open house,” and no public comments were allowed.
Not that the public didn’t have plenty to say. Hundreds of us showed up at the Dunes Visitor Center outside Chesterton. Some were picketing. Others offered petitions.
Another, more formal, meeting was hastily called for April 15. It, too, was packed. Of the 52 people who spoke that evening, 50 spoke against the project.
Things have only gotten worse for the DNR and Pavilion Partners since then. The Hoosier Environmental Council, the Indiana chapter of the Sierra Club and the Citizens Action Coalition have lined up against the deal, joining early opponents Save the Dunes and the Izaak Walton League.
Government officials are forever talking about the importance of public input. “Be part of the solution,” they say. Well, they’re getting an earful over at the DNR.