SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Work to refurbish and privatize a pavilion at Indiana Dunes State Park to bring restaurants, a rooftop bar and a banquet center along Lake Michigan is temporarily on hold until the state Department of Natural Resources gets permission from the National Park Service to move ahead.
NPS and DNR officials say the main obstacle is a technical matter of determining whether the pavilion and adjacent banquet center will be designated as a public facility or whether the state will need to find replacement land of the same or higher value to replace it. The replacement land does not have to be at the same location.
Opponents contend the move by Pavilion Partners, a group formed by politically connected Valparaiso developer Chuck Williams, is a sell-off of public land that should be free of commercial interests. Members of Dune Action, a group that opposes alcohol sales at the park and the banquet center, are hopeful the National Park Service will stop the project, though federal officials say they don’t have the authority to do that.
“It’s still the state’s property. They just have to follow the process correctly,” said Kelly Pearce, a National Park Service project officer. “It’s still the state’s property and the state can do whatever it wants with the property. They just have to follow the regulations.”
Williams says the delay shouldn’t keep the pavilion in Chesterton, 40 miles west of South Bend, from opening in May.
“I don’t see this as even a minor road bump. The only thing they did is document in writing what we understood,” said Williams, who also believes the banquet center will still open in 2018.
Williams, a state Republican Party official who has donated to GOP causes, first announced in March 2015 he wanted to bring alcohol to the pavilion. But he’d been working behind the scenes on the project with state DNR officials, securing a 35-year privatization deal.
The deal appeared dead in September, when Porter County officials voted against granting a liquor license to Pavilion Partners and state officials upheld that decision. But Gov. Mike Pence signed a bill in March that had been passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly allowing the DNR to obtain alcohol permits for its parks without having to follow most of the usual requirements.
Williams said he wasn’t surprised when the Park Service sent the DNR a letter in June saying work at the pavilion had to stop, because Park Service officials told the DNR it was coming.
Dan Bortner, director of the DNR’s Division of State Parks and Reservoirs, said the DNR is waiting to hear from the Park Service on whether the renovated pavilion will be considered a public use facility, meaning it won’t have to replace it with other park land. The DNR will submit the plan from Pavilion Partners once the Park Service makes a decision.
“This should all come together once we get some answers,” Bortner said.