• Lack of transparency doomed Dunes liquor license

    Supporters of a liquor license at Indiana Dunes State Park were denied Tuesday morning when the Indiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission reinforced the recommendation of the Porter County Alcoholic Beverage Board to reject the return of alcohol to the lakefront.

    Pavilion Partners LLC can appeal the Commission's 4-0 decision, but the developer's principal Chuck Williams has said that operation of a restaurant is impossible without a liquor license.

    Pavilion Partners has the support of local tourism officials, along with the Northwest Indiana Forum. The Times editorialized in favor of the project. All cite the potential economic benefits of bringing an attractive banquet facility to the lakeshore.

    On the other side, is Dunes Action, a grassroots organization that opposed the introduction of alcohol as something that would fundamentally change the current family-oriented atmosphere of the park and cause safety concerns as well. 

    Beyond safety, Dunes Action's case against Pavilion Partners was bolstered by a less-than-transparent process with an undercurrent of politics. That process turned the tide from what once appeared to be a done deal to Tuesday's defeat.

    The Post-Tribune uncovered emails that showed Pavilion Partners' Williams, former Porter County Republican chairman, was in contact with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources about the potential project as early as 2010. A request for proposal was published November 2011 in the Chesterton Tribune, the lone Northwest Indiana publication where it was printed.

    Just one other group submitted a proposal to the DNR by the March 2012 deadline. Pavilion Partners won the contract with the benefit of its head start. When Pavilion Partners released details of its plan and renderings for the banquet facility earlier this year, the backlash began. Park supporters who backed the renovation of its historic pavilion questioned the impact that a large banquet center building would have on the fragile lakefront.

    In the scramble to stop the development, the liquor license that had yet to be granted became the avenue for opposition. While the focus of Tuesday's decision was limited to alcohol, the battle over the State Park project has always been about process.

    Had the DNR gone about its plans differently, it may well have been able to sell the public on the concept of building a new attraction to fund the preservation of a historic building. We might have seen a very different outcome than the one that now leaves the development in limbo.

  • The great train shutdown

    I’ve spoken frequently on this blog in support of expanding public transportation in Northwest Indiana. Well, a possibility has arisen that, come year’s end, we could learn the hard way how beneficial public transit can be to our wallets.

    Congress stipulated in 2008 that all trains must be outfitted with Positive Train Control (PTC), a system that can monitor and stop trains in case of emergency via GPS, by January 1, 2016. Outfitting the South Shore line with this system will cost around $120 million, nearly $80 million more than was budgeted for the refit.

    The NICTD and local officials are requesting an extension on the deadline. Should the request be denied, the South Shore would have to end its services.

    Just when its long-gestating expansion finally started moving forward, the rail might literally be stopped dead in its tracks.

    For those of us who travel to Chicago on occasion, this is an inconvenience. But for residents who rely on the line for frequent commutes to the city, it will really sting in the pocketbook.

    Let’s compare prices: 

    A one-way fare on the South Shore from Indiana and South Suburb stations to the downtown stops costs $8 or less, except for the last two stops way out in Hudson Lake or South Bend. For frequent commuters, there’s also 10-ride, 25-ride, or monthly tickets that, used daily, average out to slightly cheaper than a one-way ride. Also, it's free to park in most station lots.

    Parking in Chicago, on the other hand, will set you back at least $2 per hour. For a whole 8-hour workday, that comes to more than one round-trip at most of the South Shore’s rates. And that’s before taking into account the extra driving time or gas expended going to Chicago, versus Region residents’ fairly short drive to the nearest South Shore station.

    Apparently, the South Shore isn’t the only rail in the country who’s behind on implementing PTC, so it’s possible its shutdown isn’t a foregone conclusion. But whatever happens, it’s clear that a major transportation infrastructure like the South Shore saves riders money they’d otherwise spend on gas and parking.

    We should keep that in mind if and whenever the debate on public transportation within the Region comes up again.