- Associated Press - Friday, February 12, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - In a Jan. 24 story about a development project at the Indiana Dunes State Park, The Associated Press, relying on information from online state campaign finance records, reported erroneously that Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, received a campaign donation of about $1,200 from Chuck Williams, a regional Republican Party official and the developer behind the project. In fact, Soliday paid Williams $1,194.30 to assist with voter turnout efforts, records show.

A corrected version of the story is below:

Dunes privatization deal could be on track under House bill

Indiana lawmakers are looking to breathe life into a stalled privatization deal that awarded a long-term lease to a well-connected Republican developer who wants to bring fine dining and a bar to Indiana Dunes State Park

By BRIAN SLODYSKO

Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Indiana lawmakers are looking to breathe life into an embattled privatization deal that awarded a long-term lease to a well-connected Republican developer who wants to bring fine dining and a bar to the Indiana Dunes State Park, which conservationists have fought to keep free from commercial development for over a century.

Valparaiso businessman Chuck Williams hired a lobbying firm and is working with lawmakers to push a bill that would circumvent an October ruling by the state’s Alcohol and Tobacco Commission, which upheld a local liquor board’s decision to deny him an alcohol permit.

Williams 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, a rooftop bar, and a glass-walled banquet hall offering “the best view in Indiana.”

The project by Williams’ Pavilion Partners was opposed by local environmental activists and others who helped scuttle his bid for the alcohol permit. But GOP House Speaker Brian Bosma said he hopes Rep. Tom Dermody, who chairs the House policy committee, will find an equitable way to “bring the committee to ‘Yes.’”

“There’s a dilapidated building there that needs to be built up, and we need to support the program - whether it is Mr. Williams or somebody else,” said Dermody, a LaPorte Republican.

The measure by Rep. Sean Eberhart, R- Shelbyville, would require the ATC to bypass local liquor control boards and issue an “economic development” alcohol permit for projects like Williams’ and would retroactively apply to his pending application before the ATC, which is on appeal. A spokeswoman said Eberhart was not available to comment Friday.

This isn’t the first time Williams has asked lawmakers for help. Alcohol was previously banned at the park - a prohibition Williams helped turn back with the assistance of northwest Indiana lawmakers, including his neighbor Rep. Ed Soliday, a Valparaiso Republican who in 2012 sponsored legislation allowing alcohol sales and consumption.

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

For five years, Williams worked behind the scenes with state Department of Natural Resources officials, securing the decades-long privatization deal. But once the project was formally announced last March, it was engulfed in controversy amid accusations that Williams used political clout to get a sweetheart deal, working with the state long before the project went out to bid.

Williams, a state Republican Party official, has denied that his political connections played a role, and the Indiana DNR says it followed state and federal laws and did not give Williams preferential treatment. Recently updated state records show that Williams has contributed about $175,000 in office space and cash donations to GOP causes, a correction to previous state figures that indicated he had given nearly twice that amount.

If nothing is done and an alcohol permit is not granted, Williams has said the state could owe him millions for breaking their contract. Besides, he argues, he is looking to turn around a building that the state neglected for decades and has shown little interest in paying to improve.

“Clearly, we believe this public-private partnership will benefit the State of Indiana for many years to come,” Pavilion Partners said in the statement. “We know there has been a lot of misinformation put out there by certain groups and we look forward to the opportunity to correct the record and clear up the confusion that has been caused.”

Legal experts, though, have said the deal raises red flags and amounts to a long-term give-away of cherished public parkland. They questioned why the state didn’t seek additional bids on the project. The only competing offer came from a nonprofit group of local conservationists, lawyers and finance professionals.

“The public was loud and clear about no booze at the park,” said Desi Robertson, of the group Dunes Action! “Now legislators are trying to reverse that by changing laws to cut out public input.”

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Online: House bill 1247 can be found at https://iga.in.gov/

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Follow Brian Slodysko on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BrianSlodysko

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