- Associated Press - Monday, March 7, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - The Indiana House gave final approval Monday to a measure designed to revive a stalled privatization deal that would bring restaurants, a rooftop bar and a banquet center to Indiana Dunes State Park.

The House agreed to changes made in the Senate, voting 63-30 to send the bill to Republican Gov. Mike Pence’s desk.

The measure 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. It circumvents 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 for the development amounts to a sell-off of public land that should be free of commercials interests.

Democrats railed against the measure, noting it was folded into a massive alcohol and tobacco bill that contained other provisions many people support.

House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, of Michigan City, said many are opposed to alcohol sales at the park. But he added “it really has more to do with the idea that somebody seems to be getting a special deal.”

Pence spokeswoman Kara Brooks said in an email that “the governor will review the legislation when it reaches his desk and make a decision.”

Williams is a state Republican Party official who has donated handsomely to GOP causes. But he has disputed allegations that his connections played a role in the project’s advancement. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources has said it followed state and federal laws and did not give Williams preferential treatment in approving the project, which gives him control of the facilities for decades to come in exchange for $18,000 in yearly rent and 2 percent of sales.

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

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.”

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.

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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