Rich James: Steep climb for Lake County convention center
Thursday, September 29, 2016 9:45 AM
MERRILLVILLE – Judging by the initial comments from Lake County government officials, it’s going to be a long time before a substantial convention center is built. Talk of the convention center has escalated since it was announced that the Radisson Hotel and Star Plaza Theater will be razed later this year and early next year. A new hotel is planned, but there won’t be any convention facilities to replace those that will be eliminated.
Speros Batistatos, the president and CEO of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority, has proposed the imposition of a 3-percent food and beverage tax to help pay for the new facility. Such a tax would have to be approved by the Lake County Council and Commissioners.
The large convention centers around the state, including one in Indianapolis, are funded in part with food and beverage taxes. Lake County government officials essentially said they want it all but don’t want to pay for it.
County Councilman Eldon Strong, a Crown Point Republican, said he supports a convention center but not a tax. “We can’t tax food vendors out of business,” Strong said. Strong’s logic is skewed in that the patrons, not the restaurant owners, pay the tax.
Strong went on, “I have no problem with a center as long as it doesn’t get into my pocketbook.” Fellow Republican Councilman Dan Dernulc had the same lack of vision, saying, “I don’t think the public should be paying for something like this.”
Both councilmen are wrong. A 3-percent tax on a $20 restaurant bill is 60 cents. On a $100 bill, it is $3. If you can’t afford that, you ought to stay home.
Lake County Commissioner Gerry Scheub, D-Merrillville, who has a tough reelection race this fall, is opposed, saying, “I just don’t want us to go into something that will cost the taxpayers a lot of money.” It wouldn’t be fair to say that 60 cents on a $20 dinner bill is a lot of money.
Batistatos responded to the naysayers, saying, “All a Lake County resident has to do is look at the successes of the places we admire in this state and how they paid for it. Fifty percent of the food and beverage tax is ultimately paid by visitor who you are building the facilities for.”
Batistatos is right, but he has a big hill to climb. Lake County officials over the years have seemed to think voting for a tax was a death knell. They have rarely had the vision to talk about the benefits from what a tax would pay for. With a convention center, we are talking about jobs at the facility and at restaurants, hotels and retail outlets in the area.
Batistatos is right, but he has a steep hill to climb.
Rich James has been writing about state and local government and politics for more than 30 years. He is a columnist for The Times of Northwest Indiana.