Reported By: Jordan Vandenberge & Kayla Moody
After a marathon meeting Monday night, the majority of the Evansville City Council decides to delay a vote on the convention hotel project for another week. The decision came after Mayor Lloyd Winnecke detailed some drastic changes to how the project will be financed and how much public money will go into it.
The five hour, eighteen minute Finance Committee meeting before the actual City Council meeting Monday became heated at times as more than 40 people spoke for or against the hotel project. Mayor Winnecke was the first to take the podium as he outlined the latest changes to the financing of the hotel project, including the lowering of the public subsidy.
The public subsidy for the actual hotel project has been dropped to $7.5 million with the City also contributing $12.5 million for ancillary projects like infrastructure improvements and the parking garage. That brings the City's total contribution for the hotel project to $20 million. Earlier on Monday, Eyewitness News learned a group of local private investors would contribute $11.5 million to the hotel project which, in turn, would lower the public subsidy. While it's not clear what entities are a part of this group of private investors, Eyewitness News can confirm the group is headlined by Old National Bank.
The developer, HCW of Branson, Missouri, would pick up the rest of the $71.3 million dollar project. Mayor Winnecke announced on Friday that the retail building portion of the hotel plans had been scrapped, saving $5 million. In addition, Winnecke says HCW agreed to lower the public subsidy for the actual hotel by $1 million based on encouraging new data.
"[The Council] could have voted it down tonight and they chose not to," said Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke. "They like the direction it's going. We'll remain upbeat and continue to work with the Council in the next week."
"I have mixed emotions," said Councilwoman Stephanie Brinkerhoff-Riley (D-3rd Ward). "I am excited and thrilled that this deal has changed. But when it changes by $18.5 million in 4 days, I don't know whether to tell you I'm happy with it or not because I don't know where the end is and I'm not sure we're there."
"I think we could have had five votes in support tonight but if this is what's going to soothe their concerns, let's just hope it doesn't go past another week because we've seen that before," said Councilman Jonathan Weaver (D-At Large), a staunch supporter of the hotel project.
The decision to delay the hotel drew some audible complaints from the crowd, which was overwhelmingly in support of the hotel project. The maximum capacity crowd spilled into the hallway outside the Council chambers, many of them clad with orange stickers in support of the hotel project. Those opposed to the hotel project were also in attendance and frequently cheered while council members grilled city officials.
"We have to do something there," said Councilman John Friend (D-5th Ward). "It's just that the fit needs to be right and hopefully we're getting to that point."
Officials representing the developer, HCW, were quick to point out that the project would be built using local labor and that minority and women owned business programs would be implemented.
Monday night the crowd erupted when Councilman Conor O'Daniel (D-At Large) suggested he and other council members needed more time to mull over the financing changes. Some speakers questioned the council's need to review the changes, saying another delay would draw negative attention to the city.
"This whole process is making us look so bad," said Debbie Dewey, Executive Director of Growth Alliance for Greater Evansville (GAGE), during an impassioned speech before the council. "You're making my job almost impossible because people are saying, 'Why would I want to go through? That there are so many communities out there that I can invest my money in and bring jobs through and I don't have to go through this because they welcome me and they understand the value I'm bringing.'"
"There's just a pattern that our elected officials are slow about making change and I got a lot of friends in Owensboro that's been kidding me lately because they've already broken ground for a second hotel and they've even gone to the extent to tell me they're going to send an invitation to the ribbon cutting," said Ron Lyles, a supporter of the hotel proposal.
Many who adamantly opposed the proposal from its genesis, adapted a more positive tone after hearing the revised financing provisions. Members of the Facebook opposition group, Citizens of Evansville Against A Taxpayer Funded Hotel, said the scaled back plan was a step in the right direction and supported delaying the vote. Group members said they still want to see the use of the city's innkeeper's tax removed from the project.
Brad Linzy, an administrator for the Facebook group, commended the council members for taking extra time to review the project. "I feel like when you're asking pertinent questions that have to do with the numbers and the real nuts and bolts you shouldn't be subjected to hackling. [John] Friend (D-4th Ward) particularly, he's been really demonized by this and undeservedly so," said Linzy, who also applauded the skeptical stance taken by Stephanie Brinkerhoff-Riley (D-3rd Ward) and Conor O'Daniel (D-At Large) leading up to Monday's meeting. "These things take guts and those are the qualities you look for in a city council member."
While hotel supporters pushed council members to vote Monday, those against the deal called for due diligence. "I would have asked for maybe two weeks to even a month because we're going to have to look at all the details," said Linzy. "But in the meantime a week is probably a good compromise."
Prior to Monday evening, six of the nine council members were expected to vote against the hotel. As the meeting dismissed late Monday night, many weary-eyed people filed out of room 301 feeling increasingly optimistic. Supporters said they felt confident the mayor's concessions would be enough to sway five council members to vote "yes" in one week, and some of the most vocal opponents took comfort in knowing their voices were heard. Perhaps the multi-million dollar elephant in the room wasn't the hotel proposal, but the path it took to reach compromise.