Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke is not giving up his push for the downtown convention center hotel as yet another obstacle unfolds. Two weeks after asking for more time to 'vett' the hotel's developer, some Evansville City Councilmembers say their priorities have shifted to a different project.
After meeting with City Council leadership Wednesday morning, Winnecke says City Council leadership informed him they would be proceeding with a vote on the hotel project at Monday's meeting. Mayor Winnecke says he asked them to have the vote on September 30th but that request was declined.
The meeting included Mayor Winnecke, City Council President Connie Robinson, Council Finance Chairman John Friend and Councilman H. Dan Adams.
At that meeting, Winnecke says he expected Council leadership to express their desire for a third-party review of the developer's finances as well as a possible change in the plans for a hotel.
Instead, Council leadership brought forth a new concern and a new priority. Councilman Friend says he, Councilwoman Robinson and Councilman Adams would rather focus on luring in the possible I.U. Medical School expansion project to downtown Evansville.
"It's incumbent upon the administration to make it's case once again to encourage the Council to not pass up a shovel ready project that will have a $400 million dollar economic impact, simply to wait two-and-a-half years until a proposed medical school expansion may or may not occur."
After more than two years, three developers, several studies, dozens of public meetings and an attempted third-party review, Mayor Winnecke says Council leadership wants the I.U. Medical School expansion to come first and the hotel come second.
"It's disappointing that the target continues to move," said Mayor Winnecke. "I'll leave it at that."
Councilman John Friend says the change in priorities is for good reason.
"[The IU Medical School project] would one that would totally transform the downtown area," said City Councilman John Friend (D-4th Ward). "To lose that opportunity because we got a little premature on a needed convention hotel, it would be regrettable."
Mayor Winnecke is in full support of the medical school and hotel projects and says financial analysis of the city shows both projects can be done. Councilman Friend, who is the Council's Finance Chairman, doesn't agree.
Friend says the City would need the money to lure the medical school expansion project that would have otherwise been spent on the hotel. Because money will be the ultimate deciding factor in luring in the medical school project, according to Friend, the city should 'put the horse before the cart.'
"I'm a gatekeeper," said Councilman Friend. "I don't have the luxury of ignorance."
Furthermore, Friend believes, a private developer would want to build a hotel without a public subsidy if the medical school project comes a reality. However, Mayor Winnecke says the medical school project is an uncertainty and could be more than two years away from becoming a reality. Winnecke says the Indiana General Assembly would have to approve some funding for the project in the 2015 budget. Friend believes the city will find out if it's secured the project sooner than that.
"Which one do you take the biggest risk on?' said Councilman Friend. "Losing out on the med school or losing out on the hotel?"
"We're pushing off another great employment opportunity because we're choosing to have different priorities," said Mayor Winnecke.
This latest development comes on the heels of a memo released by Mayor Winnecke earlier this week. The memo written by Rob Hunden of Hunden Strategic Partners. Hunden's firm was hired to analyze the feasibility of a hotel project. In that memo, Hunden stated that no private developer would 'want to spend the time or money to go down this road for a fifth time.' The City has failed to reach an agreement with three previous developers and the current developer, HCW of Branson, MO., could very well see the City Council vote down the current hotel project.
Friend says the change in priorities from the convention hotel project to the medical school project came just within the last couple of days. Friend says it appeared that the medical school project was off of the table and I.U. was looking at Warrick County as the site. When that changed, Friend says his priorities changed.
When it comes to the hotel project, Mayor Winnecke says he's doing his best to maintain a positive attitude although support from some members of City Council appears to be waning.
In the days leading up to Monday's vote, he will be making his case for the hotel project. Furthermore, Winnecke says he will bring in officials from the developer, economic officials as well as other supporters of the project.
"If I don't go into that meeting attempting to convince five people to vote affirmatively for this project, I don't think I'm doing my job," said Mayor Winnecke.
At Martin Luther King Blvd. and Walnut, Winnecke says the hotel would bring life to the corner. But it appears those plans might meet their end, backed into one.
"If the vote is no, the current project as we know it will be dead," Mayor Winnecke said. "What happens after that, I don't know."
Ultimately, just a simple majority of the Council (5 votes) have to vote yes for the project for it to pass. Right now, Councilman Dan McGinn, Councilwoman Missy Mosby and Councilman Jonathan Weaver have all indicated they will vote yes.
Councilman Al Lindsey, Councilman H. Dan Adams, Councilman Connor O'Daniel and Councilman John Friend have all indicated they plan on voting no.
Two Councilmembers, Stephanie Brinkerhoff-Riley and Connie Robinson remain undecided.
In an email obtained by Eyewitness News, Councilman Adams detailed why he would vote no on Monday night. Councilman Adams says while a hotel would hold what he calls 'some shimmering merit,' it's also a risky deal.
Like Councilman Friend, Councilman Adams thinks the city should pursue getting the I.U. Medical School located downtown.
"Right now we have the 'convention hotel cart' before the new downtown medical school horse," said Councilman Adams. "As our local history teaches us, hotels come and go. Our projected medical school with its 1200 students, 130 residents, an exciting simulation center, a minimum of four or more hospitals and four major educational institutions is forever!"