Deal to develop parkland near dunes riles conservationists

27 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Conservationists riled by private deal to develop parkland near Indiana’s scenic dunes.

INDIANAPOLIS — The parkland surrounding Indiana’s towering dunes was intended to keep industry away from a geological marvel molded over thousands of years at the southern tip of Lake Michigan. INDIANAPOLIS – A plan allowing a politically connected developer to operate restaurants, a rooftop bar and a banquet hall in the heart of Indiana Dunes State Park is drawing scrutiny from conservationists and some legal experts. Under the plan, Chuck Williams, a state Republican Party official and financial backer of GOP causes, will control the park’s amenities for decades to come. The Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the park, and a spokeswoman for Williams’ development group say political connections played no role.

Visitors who complete the challenge can receive a free commemorative stickers and postcards, or buy a special shirt at the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center. Although conservationists have focused on this contract because of the uniqueness of the property, privatizing services and amenities is increasingly common practice at underfunded parks across the country. The challenge has brought greater awareness to the creation of the dunes and the stewardship that goes into taking care of them, according to Ginger Murphy, assistant director of stewardship for Indiana State Parks. Still, opponents say the favorable terms of the contract, as well as the apparent advantage Williams had over his competitors, are indicative of murky proceedings that can surround privatization deals.

Jim Sweeney of the conservationist group The Izaak Walton League of America said it adds up to a “usurping” of public land in the name of private development. Emails obtained by The Associated Press and other media outlets show Williams and his architect worked on the project with DNR officials long before it went to bid.

DNR officials told an oversight board that Williams’ proposal “was more completed” than the competitor’s but made no mention of working with privately with Williams. In return, the DNR will get 2 percent of the company’s annual revenues and $18,000 a year in rent for property that state parks Director Dan Bortner describes as having a “million dollar smile.” The scope of Williams’ deal could also expand.

Over roughly a decade, Williams, his wife and business ventures collectively pumped roughly $350,000 into the county political operation, according to state records. The appearance that politics played a role has rankled many in the area, said House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, a Democrat whose district neighbors the dunes. “People see certain public private-partnerships that evade the normal types of transparency and they become worried about sweetheart deals,” said Pelath, of Michigan City. “There is an increasing worry that natural resources continue to be seen as something to be exploited rather than be enjoyed.”

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