Senate approves bill that could reinvigorate Dunes deal

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A stalled privatization deal to bring restaurants, a rooftop bar and a banquet center to Indiana Dunes State Park could be reinvigorated under a measure the Indiana Senate approved Tuesday.

The Senate passed the measure 33-17 one day after a group of environmentalists delivered to Gov. Mike Pence's office petitions bearing roughly 10,000 signatures from people opposed to the project.

The bill would allow Pavilion Partners, a group formed by politically connected Valparaiso developer Chuck Williams, to sell alcohol at the planned beachfront development — something the group says is necessary for the project to be viable. The measure would circumvent a Porter County alcohol board and the state's Alcohol and Tobacco Commission, which both ruled to deny an alcohol permit amid opposition from environmentalists who said the decades-long lease amounts to a sell-off of public land that should be free of commercials interests.

"It's frustrating, disappointing, but not completely surprising," said Jim Sweeney, of the group Dunes Action. "This thing has been greased since the alcohol permit was denied in Porter County. We suspected the developer would be calling in all favors and that if we didn't succeed we'd run into problems."

Williams is a state Republican Party official who has donated handsomely to GOP causes. But he has refuted allegations that his political connections played a role in the project's advancement. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources says it followed state and federal laws and did not give Williams preferential treatment in approving the project.

"There is no correlation between contributions I made to the local GOP 10 years ago and any legislation pending before the Legislature," Williams said Tuesday.

The Senate bill is different than a version the House passed, requiring the two chambers to both agree on the changes. If they do, the measure would go to Pence, who will "give careful consideration to any legislation that makes it to his desk," his spokeswoman Kara Brooks said.

Williams, who hired a lobbying firm to push the bill, has previously said alcohol sales would be necessary to make it profitable for him to rehabilitate a dilapidated pavilion in the park nestled among the towering dunes that line Lake Michigan. His plan would include two beachfront restaurants, the rooftop bar, and a glass-walled banquet hall offering "the best view in Indiana."

This isn't the first time Williams has asked lawmakers for help with the project. Alcohol was previously banned at the park — a prohibition Williams helped turn back with the assistance of northwest Indiana lawmakers in 2012.

The effort by Williams to renovate the pavilion dates back to the administration of Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Emails show Williams pitched the idea and worked with the DNR on a proposal long before it went out to public bid and years before a formal public hearing was held on the project. The only competing offer came from a nonprofit group of local conservationists, lawyers and finance professionals.

Shortly after the project was formally announced last March, opponents of the project accused Williams of using political clout to get a sweetheart deal.

Williams has maintained he had "a vision and a passion" to rehabilitate a building that the state has neglected since he was a child. He says he poured money into a project that the state had refused to fund.

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