The Monroe County Board of Commissioners held a session for public comment Monday night on the ongoing expansion of the Monroe County Convention Center. More than 60 people were in attendance.
The proposed additions to the convention center have faced issues during the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, it was agreed by the council that the county would renovate the current center and add 60,000 square feet of additional space along with a hotel. This would double the available space at the center, and the estimated cost of these proposed additions was $44 million.
As of now, it is undecided if connections between buildings or a parking garage will be built or when the center will be fully operational due to concerns of abiding by social distancing regulations.
The project is funded by the Food and Beverage tax, a 1% tax on prepared food and drinks, which was originally proposed in 2017 and adopted Dec. 13 that year by the Monroe County Council with a 4-3 vote in its favor.
The commissioners specified that the meeting was not dedicated to discussing the tax, as it falls under the jurisdiction of the county council as opposed to the board of commissioners. Some atttendees still addressed their frustrations with it.
William Ellis, Monroe County Republican Party chairman, suggested the project be put on hold until a later point partly because it uses these taxes on food.
“I think there is a sense of urgency for our taxpayers,” Ellis said. “I don’t think that us putting a burden on them while we make a decision on what we do going forward is really appropriate during this time.”
Other residents agreed with Ellis for different reasons. Many voiced concerns the center would open before they believed it would be safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Throughout the meeting, attendees were given the opportunity to answer polls about the project. The majority of the people in the meeting, 60%, said they had always supported the project and still do. However, 16% of attendees originally supported the initiative but have since changed their minds.
Julie Thomas, Monroe County commissioner for District 2, said even if the project moved ahead on schedule the center may not entertain large groups until 2030, but it could still be sooner if necessary.
The second question asked what residents thought of the convention center. Of the participants who responded, 41% said they want to “expand and renovate the convention center, as outlined in 2019” and another 41% said they “do not wish to proceed with the expansion and renovation project.” The remainder wanted changes to be made to the project, with 11% saying they approved of the project, but on a smaller scale and 8% saying they only wanted the center to be renovated.
Talisha Coppock, executive director of the convention center, said the project would help the center better fit the needs of the county going forward and provide more job opportunities across the county.
“Our community is outgrowing it, and we’re a regional destination,” Coppock said. “We have employees that work in the hospitality industry throughout this county.”
She noted since additions are not final, the county could consider upgrading the air ventilation systems to prevent airborne transmission of diseases such as COVID-19.
Mike McAfee, executive director of Visit Bloomington, works to promote the convention center and other businesses in the city. He estimates by investing more in the Monroe County tourism industry, the City of Bloomington would be able to see substantial economic growth following a recovery from the pandemic.
“We’re the second-most desirable meeting spot in the state of Indiana after Indianapolis,” McAfee said. “We’re not trying to be Indianapolis. Our goal is to bring in a new group of 400 people every week.”
McAfee said this stream of incoming tourists would create three new jobs in Monroe County every week and the expansion of the convention center would help with this goal.
“There are so many groups of two to 500 that would love to be able to come to downtown Bloomington and go out on the town and feel like a kid again,” McAfee said. “That’s what they love about Bloomington and that’s why this project will work.”