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Convention Center Expansion Could Require New Revenue

  • Monroe County Convention Center

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    Photo: Stan Jastrzebski

    This space (foreground) is slated to be part of the space onto which the Monroe County Convention Center (background) eventually expands.

  • Convention Center Sign

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    Photo: Stan Jastrzebski

    Conventions like this one will have space to grow if land approved for purchase Friday is filled with an expanded convention center.

Monroe County convention center officials say now is the time to expand. With the center’s share of the county’s Inn Keepers Tax finally free after 20 years spent paying off the bond used to buy the building the convention center and with property owners willing to sell, officials says there’s no reason to wait. But, buying that land could have some financial consequences for residents in the county.

The convention center is meant to attract visitors to the community thus bringing in new revenue from increased business at restaurants, shops, and hotels.  But all of the meetings held in the facility during the past week have been either church services or private parties- such as wedding receptions.   That’s not to say larger conventions haven’t been held in the facility, but convention officials do say they have a difficult time attracting bigger out-of-town groups. And that, Convention Center Director Talisha Coppock said, is because the convention center simply isn’t big enough.

“We can attract them we don’t have a place to put them,” Coppock said. “It’s such a lost opportunity. I mean our whole meeting space total square footage is 22,000 square feet which is not very big so the next size up is more like 70,000 to 100,000 square feet of meeting space.”

Convention center officials hope to acquire the adjacent plots of land to the east and south of the convention center for a total of 4 additional acres.  Coppock said the two plots would cost about $5.3 million. The money would be paid back over the next 20 years through the county’s Inn Keeper’s tax.  But the Inn Keeper’s tax is also the convention center’s primary source of revenue.  That’s leaving some to question what the county is going to do with the land once they purchase it and more importantly, how they’ll pay for it.  Both properties under consideration are part of a Tax Increment Finance District, a method for collecting and keeping property taxes in the district, and a Community Revitalization Enhancement District, which collects payroll and retail sales taxes for use within that zone.But, Director of the office of Economic Development and Sustainability Danise Alano Martin said those sectors are controlled by the city.

“If our redevelopment commission doesn’t have an interest—you know, a legal property interest—then we probably couldn’t use it build a convention center, but that doesn’t mean that we couldn’t work out an arrangement with the convention center so that the redevelopment commission would be an owner of a new building, but that depends on the redevelopment commission if they want to pursue that,” Alano Martin said.

And Alano Martin said the officials had the convention center in mind when they applied for the down town CRED’s designation in 2004. So while she can make no promises, she estimates the approximately $4-million in the fund could be a good source of funding for the center’s expansion.

Officials are also hoping to drum up some revenue by eventually selling part of the land. One idea is possibly seeing if a hotel developer is interested in part of the property.  They also said they’ll bring in a little money from tenants who are leasing parts of the properties.

But, even so, the Convention Center’s Coppock said she thinks the officials will need to find another significant source of revenue to start building and she said she would support a push to instate a food and beverage tax in the county.

“It’s, for us, one of the number one sources of revenue that makes a lot of sense. It’s the hospitality facility capital improvement project and there are 91 restaurants within 10 minutes of the convention center and I think conventioneers love to go to restaurants so I think there’s a lot of synergy there that makes a lot of sense.”

The Monroe County Council has the legislative authority to pass what would be a 1-percent food and beverage tax on orders from restaurants in the county. It’s a tax that local restaurant owners have been vocally opposed to. Bloomington Independent Restaurant Association Executive Director Paul Busby said some restaurant owners, feel the tax could be useful, but the association as a whole,is still voicing dissent. Busby admits that conventions do probably bring additional customers to restaurants, but generally only to restaurants nearest the center, making the tax unfair.

“The county is going to be paying for the tax,” Busby said. “So is it just the downtown restaurants that are going to benefit from the convention center since they’re so close to it? What the restaurants, you know, Tallens restaurant Eagle Point, what about all the restaurants on the west side? What about the restaurants in Ellettsville? So you know, it’s who benefits from this?”

Busby said if the tax is approved BIRA members would hope it would be used for tourism and restaurant promotion, not to construct public buildings. And while county council members say they won’t be ready to instate the tax anytime in the near future some, like Council President Geoff McKim, said they wouldn’t rule it out down the road.

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