Republican-linked developer says Indiana Dunes work to begin

Indiana Dunes Pavilion
Chuck Williams, a state Republican Party official, poses Oct. 19, 2015, by the dilapidated beachfront pavilion at Indiana Dunes State Park in Chesterton, Ind. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A Republican Party official with a lucrative privatization deal to redevelop an aging pavilion at Indiana Dunes State Park plans to forge ahead with the project, which was in limbo amid numerous setbacks, and hopes to break ground in the coming months.

“As we continue to work with both the state of Indiana and our architects, we anticipate final renderings to be available in late June. Once we receive feedback from the state, we hope to begin renovation of the pavilion around Labor Day,” said Steve Patterson, a spokesman for the group Pavilion Partners, whose principal, Chuck Williams, is treasurer of the Indiana Republican Party.

Williams first proposed the project in 2010, viewing the limestone building, nestled among towering dunes at the southern tip of Lake Michigan, as an underutilized asset that could be developed to showcase “the best view in Indiana.”

His vision for the pavilion included two beachfront restaurants, a rooftop bar and a glass-walled banquet hall. To help secure the deal, Pavilion Partners hired attorney Kyle Hupfer, a former director of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, who was named chairman of the Indiana Republican Party this year.

But Pavilion Partners ran into a buzz saw of obstacles, including difficulties securing a liquor license and opposition from local environmentalists who said the parkland should be free from commercial interests. The project required special legislation approved by the General Assembly in 2016 to circumvent several rulings denying the group a liquor license.

The latest hurdle involves ironing out the technical details of whether the completed project 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. That requires approval from the National Park Service.

Emily Ferguson, an NPS compliance official, said the state has yet to submit paperwork that would clear the way for the construction of the banquet facility. But she says the federal agency does not have a say over work on the pavilion.

Phil Bloom, a DNR spokesman, said the agency is “still working through our internal processes and there’s nothing to add at this time.”

Pavilion Partners already built new restrooms and showers at the site. They also put new roofing on the pavilion.

Patterson said in an email that the next phase of construction will continue through winter and the pavilion should be open sometime in spring 2018. He says Pavilion Partners hopes to start work on the banquet center sometime in 2018.

But Jim Sweeney, co-founder of the environmental group Dunes Action, says it is still unclear whether the project has cleared all of the procedural hurdles. In particular, he questioned if it satisfies requirements established by the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was created by Congress in 1964 to preserve national parks, preserves and wildlife areas.

The park has received grants from the fund, obligating state officials to abide by procedures and rules set by the federal program, Sweeney said.

“It looks like they are ready to go ahead, but in reality they aren’t even close to complying,” he said.

That includes a mandatory public comment period, said Sweeney, who also raised the possibility of a court challenge, adding that “litigating is always an option.”

Once — and if — the dunes project is completed, it is expected to generate a handsome return for Pavilion Partners, according to preliminary figures submitted to the DNR.

In its first year, the development is expected to turn a $141,000 profit — a figure projected to climb to nearly $500,000 in a decade.

In return, the DNR will get 2 percent of the company’s annual revenues and $18,000 a year in rent.

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