INDIANAPOLIS — A House committee is expected to approve legislation Thursday to enable alcohol sales at the Indiana Dunes State Park pavilion, regardless of consent by local authorities.
House Bill 1247 was amended by the Public Policy Committee on Wednesday to allow the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to obtain a new "state park" alcohol permit, without having to follow most of the procedures typically required to get state permission to sell beer, wine or liquor — including local review.
"I view these permits that we're talking about for the state parks as an economic development tool for the state, and a chance for us to leverage the assets that we have in our state parks," said state Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, sponsor of the measure.
While the proposal eases the process to sell alcohol in every state park, nearly all the committee testimony during the three-hour hearing focused on the Dunes Pavilion controversy.
Last March, Pavilion Partners, LLC inked a $5 million public-private partnership with the DNR to renovate the historic lakefront pavilion and add a banquet center on an existing cement pad adjacent to the building.
After local residents furiously protested the possibility of drinking in the park, the Porter County Alcoholic Beverage Commission twice denied Pavilion Partners the alcohol sales permit they said is needed to run a successful operation.
That decision was affirmed in October by the Indiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission. An appeal before an ATC administrative law judge tentatively is scheduled for April.
The appeal may not be needed, however, if the proposed state park alcohol measure becomes law.
Norman Hellmers, of Valparaiso, speaking on behalf of Dunes Action, a group opposed to alcohol in the park, said it is unconscionable that state lawmakers would do an end-run around a decision that's already been settled locally.
"When you want to add an amendment that says they can just automatically get a permit for each of the state parks without any local input whatsoever, well that's simply not the democratic way to do things," Hellmers said.
Region representatives of the Sierra Club and Isaac Walton League environmental organizations similarly condemned the proposal.
The measure was supported by members of local building trades unions, Region tourism organizations, the state's commerce agency, Northwest Indiana Forum and the DNR.
"This is not a permit that's going to turn our parks into one giant saloon," DNR Director Cam Clark said. "We have structures that people want to hold events in all throughout our system. ...This gives us control to offer that service."
State Rep. Tim Wesco, R-Osceola, appeared unconvinced. He said the committee should respect the opinion of the local community in the Dunes controversy and not change the rules while an appeal is pending.
But state Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, replied state parks are state property, and state lawmakers are the proper decision-makers concerning whether alcohol should be allowed in park buildings.
The committee is set to vote at 7:30 a.m. Region time on whether to advance the legislation to the full House.
If the proposal wins House approval, it still must pass the Senate and be signed by Gov. Mike Pence to become law.