Economic Development and Real Estate & Retail

Hotel proposed for Hamilton County's Strawtown: Site overlaps sensitive American Indian land

December 19, 2005

Hamilton County park officials hope to find a developer to build a three-star hotel in 750-acre Strawtown Koteewi Park, an area rich with fragile American Indian artifacts.

Businesses near the northeastern Hamilton County park love the idea. American Indian groups are less enthusiastic, but willing to work with park officials.

"It's kind of disturbing," said Chief Brian Buchanan of the Miami Nation of Indians of the State of Indiana. "You wouldn't want anybody digging up your grandmother."

Buchanan learned of the plan from IBJ. Hamilton County officials had yet to tell him about the proposal, even though it's been on the park's master plan for three years.

He probably would have caught wind of it soon. The Hamilton County Convention and Visitors Bureau soon will finish a feasibility study and start sharing the materials with potential investors.

While the plans aren't complete, Al Patterson, superintendent of the Hamilton County Parks and Recreation Department, said he could envision a hotel similar to the Potawatomi Inn in Pokagon State Park in Angola.

The 142-room facility has a 200-seat restaurant, a 90-seat café and 11 conference rooms, including a 650-person ballroom. Like Koteewi, Pokagon also has ample nature and bike trails.

It's not clear how much a similar facility would cost to build in Hamilton County. But Tim Dora, a principal with locally based hotel developer Dora Brothers Hospitality Corp., said a hotel similar in quality to a Hilton Garden Inn would cost about $75,000 per room, or more than $10.5 million.

Dora calls the plan "ambitious." He owns the Hilton Garden Inns in Carmel and Fishers and said the market is "near saturation."

Adding to the challenge will be the park's rural location-it's in an area so removed from commercial development that on a recent Sunday shotgun blasts from deer hunters were more common than hikers on the trails.

Several locations in the park are "highly sensitive," said Bob McCullough, a professor of archaeology at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, who has surveyed the park.

It's also one of the last places to do research on the cultures indigenous to the White River Valley. Beginning around 1200, American Indians inhabited the area and grew beans and maize. Around 1425, they disappeared. Scientists don't know why.

"That's one of the burning questions," McCullough said.

Koteewi Park is one of the last hopes for figuring it out. Gravel companies have snatched up almost all the other historic areas up and down the valley.

Hamilton County officials, however, downplay the potential for controversy.

"We'll work with the Department of Natural Resources and several local universities to do all the necessary due diligence before we move forward," said Patterson, who believes the park's rich history will help lure visitors.

He isn't offering empty platitudes, experts said.

"Hamilton County Parks and Recreation has been proactive about archaeology," said Rick Jones, the state's archaeologist. "They have the work done and if there's a [significant] site, they either avoid it or preserve it."

McCullough, the archeology professor, agreed. He pointed to work the parks department already has done in Koteewi Park. In September 2004, officials cut the ribbon on the Taylor Center of Natural History. McCullough surveyed the land where the building sits beforehand to make sure the project didn't infringe on delicate land. He's already done a similar survey of the proposed hotel site.

While the park has several sensitive areas, they're in flood plains, not exactly prime real estate for a hotel, McCullough said.

Local businesses hope the idea comes together.

"It would definitely increase business," said Diane Garrison, owner of Strawtown Pottery and Antiques, a half mile east of the park. Three miles south, Purgatory Golf Club attracts a regular stream of out-oftown guests.

"A hotel would be very nice," said head golf professional John Stutz. "We get quite a few phone calls from people looking for places to stay."

Hamilton County has about 2,100 hotel beds, but most are in Fishers and Carmel, a lengthy drive from the park.

In addition to boosting local businesses, a hotel would add to the tax base and might spur additional development, said Jeff Burt, president of the Hamilton County Alliance, an economic development group.

While putting shovels in the ground at any American Indian site gets Chief Buchanan's attention, he didn't rule out working with Hamilton County officials, who he said have been "pretty respectful" in the past.

This is the 21st century, Buchanan said. "We'll do what we can to help."
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