MERRILLVILLE – Talk about the art of the deal. No, this one doesn’t involve Donald Trump. Instead, it’s Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr.

McDermott may have let the cat out of the bag the other day when talking about the potential site for a Lake County convention center.

The possibility of a convention center has been bandied about for at least a decade. Most of the focus has been to build such a facility near Interstate 65 and U.S. 30 in Merrillville.

It is at that intersection that the late Dean White operated the Radisson Hotel and Star Plaza Theatre. White was the wealthiest man in Indiana. Since his death, his hotel and theatre have been razed. Plans are in the works by White’s heirs to build a new complex on the property.

It was because of White that Speros Batistatos was named president and CEO of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority many years ago.

Because of his dedication to White, Batistatos never let talk of a convention center stray from I-65 and U.S. 30.

McDermott, who always is looking for publicity, spilled his guts during his recent State of the City address.

McDermott said he and Batistatos are working on a deal to have a convention center built on the Hammond/Highland line along Interstate 94. “Speros and I are working on a big project that will not cost taxpayers. It’s a great idea. We’re making a deal on this,” McDermott said. “I am all in. I am all in.”
McDermott said the idea is to use legislation that was created when his father was Hammond mayor. “And we are going to try to tap into this and do something special,” McDermott added. “You’ll be hearing more about this as it scoots down the line.”

Not so fast, Batistatos said, adding that the two are in the early stages. “I want to be clear, this is not a done deal,” Batistatos said. “We are very excited about the project, but funding is starting to become the critical discussion point.” Batistatos added that he has been talking to several area mayors about the possibility of a convention center.

A feasibility study that evaluated nine sites was completed last August. The key issue with any of the sites has been financing.

There long has been a push to use a county food and beverage tax as the main source of money. Many of the convention centers in the state are funded in that manner. But, the Lake County Council, which would have to enact the tax, is pretty much in opposition.

McDermott said he would like to use sales tax increment financing, which would be less invasive than a food and beverage tax. 

Rich James has been writing about politics and government for 40 years. He is retired from the Post-Tribune, a newspaper born in Gary.