Yes, you can fight City Hall. That’s the message from citizen activists across Indiana who effectively challenged two seemingly unstoppable government-backed projects that would hand over public resources for private gain.
One is a controversial dam and reservoir proposed for the White River at Anderson, a $440 million venture billed as a boon to the economy and to the regional water supply. The other is a banquet and conference center to be built in Porter County at Indiana Dunes State Park.
Both appeared done deals due to the close ties between business leaders touting the plans and political leaders positioned to act on them. In both cases, citizens felt costs outweighed benefits, and they packed public hearings to press their case.
“We used a pretty basic model,” explained Clarke Kahlo of Heart of the River Coalition, which opposed the dam. “You form a group, you name a steering committee, and you start reaching out. It does take a little courage to step forward to critique and then to challenge some of these publicly subsidized projects.”
Promoters of the Mounds Reservoir — most representing business interests — worked behind the scenes for years to gather support for a 2,100-acre lake that would stretch seven miles in Madison and Delaware counties.
Hoosier taxpayers spent $600,000 on feasibility studies, and Gov. Mike Pence came out in support of the concept, which he said had “much merit.” Yet public opposition was fierce due to its potential destructive impact on the White River, on unique habitat and on cherished Native American earthworks at Mounds State Park.
The Corporation for Economic Development in Madison County was poised to do a third feasibility study when plans for a new governmental commission to oversee the project fell apart. In September, town councils in two of the affected communities, Daleville and Yorktown, voted against joining the commission, leaving Anderson and Chesterfield as members. The votes killed the project for now; opponents promise to remain vigilant should it reappear in altered form.
A similar public response occurred in Porter County, where a private developer — Pavilion Partners LLC — is under contract with the state to open a 30,000-square-foot banquet center on the lakefront at Indiana Dunes State Park. As part of the project, the company would renovate the park’s historic and long-neglected beach pavilion built in 1929-30.
The Porter County Alcoholic Beverage Commission voted Sept. 10 to reject the liquor license sought by Pavilion Partners. The vote followed a four-hour hearing attended by 520 people, most of whom showed up to oppose the license. On Oct. 6, state officials upheld the local board’s decision.
The denial of a liquor license does not torpedo the project, but it puts a crimp in Pavilion Partners’ plan. The company said from the outset that liquor sales would be necessary to make the project financially viable.
The perception of political cronyism in the contract process fueled public opinion. An Aug. 3 investigative report by the Post-Tribune of Gary showed investors had been communicating their ideas to officials in the Department of Natural Resources for more than a year before the state invited proposals.
One of the chief investors is Chuck Williams of Valparaiso, northwest Indiana representative on the Republican State Committee. Williams denied his GOP connections played a role, and the DNR says it gave no preferential treatment.
In Indianapolis, citizens have been less successful questioning a sweetheart deal given to a French company, the Bolloré Group, to launch an electric car-sharing program using city assets. The City-County Council had no say in the project, there was no competitive bidding, and no public hearings were held to solicit public opinion on the merits of spending $6 million in taxpayer funds.
When completed, the BlueIndy system will have up to 1,000 charging stations at 200 locations, most taking the place of public-parking spots.
Complaints arose this summer after workers arrived in neighborhoods to install electric cables, service kiosks and charging stations. “They just showed up one day tearing up my front yard and put these chargers in,” homeowner Sean McCarthy told the media. “I feel like these cars, parked there all day, are going to devalue my property.”
Mayor Greg Ballard says his administration did nothing wrong by committing tax dollars and infrastructure for a profit-making venture. Because the charging stations will be available for the general public to use to charge their own electric vehicles, it is an appropriate use of public assets, his spokesman said.
A few members of the City-County Council have threatened to sue the Ballard administration for what they deem illegal use of public property. Ballard leaves office at the end of the year, so his successor may inherit this controversy.
Kahlo knows from experience that community activists must be in it for the long haul if they hope to make a difference. “The bar that is set for citizens — we, the people — is so high in cases like these. It’s hard to successfully challenge projects that are politically agreed upon from the earliest stages. But it can be done.”