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Expressing Frustration, County Commissioner Sends Warning Shot in Hotel Debate

After another Evansville City Council member announces she will vote no on the downtown hotel project, Vanderburgh County Commission President Marsha Abell warns of the potentially huge ramifications of such a vote. Abell says, without a convention hotel, the Centre could possibly close it's doors.

Reported By: Jordan Vandenberge

After another Evansville City Council member announces she will vote no on the downtown hotel project, Vanderburgh County Commission President Marsha Abell warns of the potentially huge ramifications of such a vote. Abell says, without a convention hotel, the Centre could possibly close it's doors.

Here's what's developed since Eyewitness News broke the news Wednesday night that five of the nine council members will vote "no" for the hotel contract with the developer, HCW of Branson, Missouri. The City would pay $37.5 million dollars of the $74 million dollar project .

City Council President Connie Robinson, who represents the area where the hotel would be built, says she will vote "no." That would make six council members who will turn down the deal.

That was only the beginning.

Also on Thursday, a letter from Marsha Abell, the President of the County Commission. To summarize her boldly-worded letter, Abell says build this hotel or the Centre could shut down.

That letter shot through the Civic Center quickly.

In the letter, Abell says the decision to vote 'no' on the hotel project could have huge ramifications on the City and County. Abell says it could turn downtown's progress into plywood.

***

Bookended by a rain-warped, plywood wall extending past the Centre is the 'bridge to nowhere.'

It illustrates an apprent divide, according to County Commission President Marsha Abell.

Eyewitness News obtained a letter sent from Abell to City Council President Connie Robinson.

"I was very disappointed to read that the majority of the city council intends to vote against the convention hotel," Abell said. "At a time when other communities are seeing the opportunity to expand and grow their base, we are now looking at an empty lot, no convention hotel and the very real prospect of closing the convention center except for special events,"

"They've counted on the city building a convention hotel to bring new life into the Centre," said Mayor Lloyd Winnecke. "If it doesn't happen, there are ramifications that could result."

Those ramifications, Abell says, could come sooner than what City Council leadership is now prioritizing. City Council leadership including Connie Robinson, John Friend and H. Dan Adams told Mayor Winnecke on Wednesday morning that they would rather pursue the IU Medical School expansion project first and then the hotel project second. The medical school expansion project wouldn't break ground until July 2015, if at all.

State lawmakers say while they've been able to secure money for a site survey, there's a lot of steps before that school gets built. There are three or four sites in Evansville and Warrick county where the medical school might go. Proposals from Evansville and other groups will have to be put together by next month. Then, in January or February of next year, IU trustees in Bloomington will decide where they want to put the medical school and medical center. But no construction will start until state lawmakers approve funding to build the school in 2015.

In her letter, Abell says, "then what do we sell as the reason to come to Evansville; a tired and worn out looking downtown or a new hotel with the unwritten words that Evansville is open for business?"

City Councilman John Friend, who also serves as the Finance Chair, says the medical school expansion project, if it comes to downtown Evansville, will lure in a private developer who would want to build the hotel without a public subsidy.

"There will be a hotel there, it will happen," said Friend. "We just have to make sure that we get the timing right. Don't believe this stuff that you can bet on both of them. When you don't know what the number is going to be with the medical school until you get the Request for Proposals (RFP), it would be a little foolish."

Abell says by that time, it might be too late. The Centre is losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, according to officials.

For that, we go back to the bridge -- or what's left of it.

"The county has quietly sat back and taken huge losses on the Centre since the destruction of the Executive Inn," said Abell. "Our walkway was destroyed without our permission and in complete disregard to a legal binding agreement the city and county had that the hotel would remain open for a certain period which had not expired by the time it was torn down."

Abell's claims are apparently justified, according to the minutes of a 2001 County Commission meeting. Commissioners stipulated the Former Executive Inn had to still be there for 10 years. Furthermore, commissioners stipulated that a 'sky bridge' be built and other infrastructure improvements made. That stipulation, according to records, expired in April 2011. The Executive Inn was destroyed well before that expiration date.

At that 2001 commission meeting, former Commissioner Catherine Fanello made the following statement about the Executive Inn's deteriorating condition.

"We have a $40 million facility [the Centre] sitting there practically not living up to it's potential because we have no quality convention hotel," said Fanello.

In all of it's rusted glory, standing tall is the 'bridge to nowhere.' Without a hotel, Abell worries the city's downtown area will likely head the same direction.

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Here is Abell's letter to Connie Robinson, posted in it's entirety.

Dear President Robinson:

I was very disappointed to read that the majority of the city council intends to vote against the convention hotel.  As president of the Vanderburgh County Board of Commissioners, I want to again express the commission’s desire for a convention hotel as set forth in the resolution we previously passed and sent to the city council.

At a time when other communities are seeing the opportunity to expand and grow their base, we are now looking at an empty lot, no convention hotel and the very real prospect of closing the convention center except for special events.  This would mean the loss of jobs at the center, most of which are union positions. The stock market has just ended a week of growth (actually a year plus) and yesterday was a huge “up” day in the market.  And here we are not taking advantage of the opportunity to bond a growth project at a time when people are regaining confidence in our economy.

The IU medical school is a wonderful project but it won’t be before the legislature until 2015.  Then what do we sell as the reason to come to Evansville; a tired and worn out looking downtown or a new hotel with the unwritten words that Evansville is open for business. 

The county has quietly sat back and taken huge losses on The Centre since the destruction of the Executive Inn.  Our walkway was destroyed without our permission and in complete disregard to a legal binding agreement the city and county had that the hotel would remain open for a certain period which had not expired by the time it was torn down.  In fact, the county had to secure the walkway as it was left open for birds to inhabit and destroy.  Still, we in the county had faith that the city would have a hotel in operation and The Centre would again have convention business.  

The county feels that we have gone beyond any reasonable degree to accommodate the city in every way.  The city has annexed much of the east side which cut into our operating budget and we continue to attempt to fund The Centre in hopes that we, as county executives, can assist the city in their endeavor to revitalize an aging community.  But, I personally view this as the city’s lack of faith in its ability to ever regain any presence in the State of Indiana and sadly the county will suffer from this decision.  Earlier this year the county council seriously discussed boarding up the Old Courthouse and the Coliseum so that both buildings are secure but not in use.  And, now without a convention hotel we will be looking at securing and closing The Centre.  No company, private or public, can continue to operate a facility at losses the size of the ones we have been experiencing at The Centre.  I do not believe the IU Med School or any other business will want to locate in Evansville with two large structures boarded up and one closed and not used.  What a sad day for this community.


Sincerely,


Marsha Abell, President
Board of Commissioners of Vanderburgh County

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