Developer denied alcohol license for Indiana Dunes plan

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Officials have denied a liquor license for a politically connected developer’s proposal to bring fine dining, a rooftop bar and a chic banquet hall to the beachfront of Indiana Dunes State Park.

Although developer Chuck Williams was “somewhat surprised” when the Porter County Alcoholic Beverage Commission voted down the license Williams says is necessary for his project to succeed, the plan is far from dead, a spokeswoman for Williams’ Pavilion Partners said Friday.

In the coming weeks, the Indiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission will take up the matter and could ultimately issue Williams a license. Even if the ATC’s four-member panel agrees with the county liquor board’s 3-1 “no” vote, Williams could appeal — and ultimately take the matter to court.

“Pavilion Partners respects the position the local board members faced and looks forward to a different outcome with the state board,” spokeswoman Deb Butterfield said, reading from a prepared statement. She said Williams was not available for comment.

For five years, Williams worked behind the scenes on the project with state Department of Natural Resources officials, securing a decades-long privatization deal to rehab and expand a historic pavilion at the park. But once the project was announced last March, the deal was engulfed in controversy amid accusations that Williams used his political clout to get a sweetheart deal.

Williams, a high-ranking state Republican Party official who has donated handsomely to GOP causes, has denied his political connections played a role. And the Indiana DNR says it followed state and federal laws and did not give Williams preferential treatment. However, legal experts have said the deal raises red flags and amounts to a long-term give-away of cherished public parkland. And they questioned why the state didn’t seek additional bids on the project. The only competing offer came from a nonprofit group of local conservationists, lawyers and finance professionals.

Local liquor boards are given significant discretion under state law. A state handbook distributed to local boards states a license can be denied if “the neighborhood and/or community do not desire the services.”

A county board’s ruling can only be reversed “if it’s arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion or otherwise not in accordance with the law,” said Jessica Allen, who is legal counsel to the ATC.

Desi Robertson, co-founder of the conservationist group Dunes Action!, which organized against the project, said she doesn’t see any reason why the state would overturn the decision.

“We think a lot of those legal requirements are met,” Robertson said. “It’s pretty clear the community did not want the services.”

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