The Bloomington City Council unanimously passed an ordinance Wednesday to approve an interlocal agreement between Bloomington and Monroe County for the support of building an expanded convention center.
The Monroe County Convention Center, located at 302 S. College Ave., uses its space to hold several types of events such as gallery walks, fundraisers and concerts. The convention center is owned by Bloomington Downtown Co., a non-profit organization.
The convention center was originally a Henry Ford Model T assembly plant and showroom before the community transformed it into a convention center in 1991. The convention center underwent a remodel in 2012.
According to a city memorandum, the council voted to support a 1% food and beverage tax passed by the Monroe County Council in 2017 to fund the expansion of the convention center. In 2018, the Monroe County Board of Commissioners and Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton established a Memorandum of Understanding to establish a nine-member steering committee to outline steps to implement the expansion project.
Even though the formation of this board received support from county and city council members, Hamilton vetoed a resolution to create a capital improvement board in December 2022. Hamilton argued that instead of a capital improvement board, composed of community and county leaders to oversee the expansion, a tax-exempt non-profit should manage this project. However, the city council overrode his veto in January 2023.
The Monroe County Board of Commissioners officially voted to establish a capital improvement board for this project in July 2023.
On Nov. 15, Hamilton signed the interlocal agreement – which city council approved during Wednesday’s meeting – that outlines the roles and responsibilities of the CIB, city and county government in the expansion.
“After seven years of often frustrating efforts to get this project launched, we are now in position to advance our economic future,” Hamilton said in a press release. “An expanded convention center will help downtown businesses thrive and welcome millions of vacationers, convention goers, business travelers, as well as our local patrons and organizations.”
According to a City of Bloomington press release, the CIB is responsible for designing and building an expanded convention center. The city council will approve funding and oversight for the project, and a city nonprofit building corporation – yet to be selected – will issue debt and own the property on behalf of the city. The city will pay the debt with revenue from the food and beverage tax, according to the city’s corporation counsel Beth Cate. County government will only be involved when county funds are provided, Cate said.
Once construction of this expanded convention center is complete, the CIB will take over operations and management, with its budget reviewed and approved by both city and county government. When debt service is complete, the city will take back ownership of the property.
While there has been some progress towards starting this this past year, Councilmember Stephen Volan said the expansion has taken too long.
“It shouldn’t have been this hard to get to this point,” Volan said. “I think that both the mayor and the commissioners have been very stubborn. I’m being polite. Very stubborn.”
According to The Herald-Times, the city and county came to an agreement regarding the project in 2018— but the agreement was terminated two weeks later, with the commissioners stating that the mayor breached the contract.
Volan said the council has discussed expanding the convention center for the past 20 years of his service. He said the expansion of the Convention Center is important for the city of Bloomington.
“Bloomington is and always has been the second most popular destination in the state after Indianapolis,” Volan said. “But we haven’t had a convention center that that has lived up to that.”
Councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith said she was pleased with the agreement.
“I think that this is a very important step for the county and city,” Piedmont-Smith said. "Not just because of the convention center and the purpose of the food and beverage tax need to actually come to fruition, but also because it shows that we can collaborate.”
Piedmont-Smith said that she is pleased to see that the agreement specifically notes a commitment to sustainable building and environmentally friendly practices. The agreement states that convention center plans from the city’s engineers must be submitted to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
The Council also unanimously passed an agreement between Bloomington and Monroe County for 2023 Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant funds, a federal grant program intended to allow local communities to support law enforcement, legal, prevention and education resources, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
According to a city memorandum, Bloomington will receive $50,533 as part of this program. The memorandum said that the money will be spent by the Bloomington Police Department on portable radios. Monroe County will receive $3,804 as part of this program, which will be spent on defibrillators.
However, Piedmont-Smith expressed her disappointment in the ordinance, even though she voted to approve it.
“[The Bureau of Justice Assistance] put out for this year that they wanted to see applications for these areas of emphasis: advancing racial equity and support for underserved communities, preventing and combating hate crimes, crime and violence reduction strategies and community-based violence intervention approaches,” Piedmont-Smith said. “I noticed that, you know, neither the city nor the county's proposals include any of these points of emphasis.”
Piedmont-Smith said that justice reform has become a big issue since 2020, and she’s disappointed the JAG proposal didn’t include it.