GUEST OPINION: Maple Leaf: What are the other options?

By TIM CLARK, guest columnist

The explanation for funding the proposed Maple Leaf Performing Arts Center (MLPAC) has been “tourists will pay for it through the innkeepers tax.”

It has also been stated that constructing the venue will require borrowing at least $10.2 million and issuing a bond. Although the strategy is to make the bond payments from the innkeepers tax, if the revenue from the venue is not sufficient to cover the payments, the responsibility to meet the bond requirements falls on the county taxpayers.

The project is also being marketed as “too good to fail.” If this is true, then take some time to market the venue to private developers who can raise capital to fund the venture.

The Maple Leaf in a different location (Gnaw Bone? Bean Blossom? Ski World?) could be an “anchor” facility that could support further residential and commercial development in the respective area that would be compatible with the comprehensive plan. This could include more housing that attracts businesses that can serve both the residential and tourist market.

A different location might also have the highest likelihood of resulting in positive trends in all the county’s Community Vitality Indicators (CVIs). CVIs include assessed value, per capita income, population growth, school enrollment and educational attainment rate. A government-owned venue does not generate property tax.

Establishment of the innkeepers tax required state government to pass a law, IC-6-9-14 Brown County Innkeepers Tax. The statute requires “county government” to provide the management and oversight of the revenue and to establish a five-member convention and visitors commission (CVC). The law states that the purpose of the commission is “to promote the development and growth of conventions and visitation in the county.” CVC members are appointed by the county commissioners and county council.

Wikipedia identifies an extensive list of tourism-related categories that would “promote the development and growth of visitation in the county” that includes cultural, historical, preservation, education, athletics, arts, agricultural, and wellness/fitness, to name a few.

In regards to the statute, CVC member Barry Herring has remarked: “I think it’s primarily supposed to promote heads in beds. It’s supposed to promote overnight stays because it’s an innkeepers tax, that’s generated by innkeepers.”

The statute does not restrict tourist-related options to those that may result in hotel stays. In fact, any of the options could result in overnight stays.

In reply to a question about the possible competition from the Opry, Herring replied: “We’re looking at it like a Branson (Missouri) scenario. We think the more, the better.” Note that Branson has been referred to as “the music capital of the entire universe” and includes numerous theaters built by nationally recognized entertainers. Gatlinburg has Dolly Parton.

The fact that Mr. Herring as the new owner of the Brown County Inn who is also a new member of the CVC had an epiphany regarding the options for investing revenue from the innkeepers tax should indicate that other investment opportunities may have been missed over the years.

A comprehensive plan is also mandated by law (Title 36, Article 7, Planning and Development). The Area Plan Commission is the body responsible for maintaining a comprehensive plan, which is required to be developed and maintained (IC 36-7-4-501) if the community wishes to exercise the power of zoning. The plan is the foundation for assessing whether new ideas fit into the strategy that citizens will support.

The plan must be updated to include a tourism strategy that identifies the categories of tourism that taxpayers may want to support with revenue from the innkeepers tax. It is up to all the county’s residents to decide how the revenue from the innkeepers tax can best be invested.

In addition to the plan, procedures also need to be developed by the plan commission and shared with the public that identify the process that will be used by members to assess the benefits of a project against the criteria identified in the plan. This change can help assure the community that the plan commission performed its due diligence before providing a recommendation.

At the Area Plan Commission (APC) meeting on Aug. 22, Bruce Gould presented the request for the required zoning change for MLPAC. The public had up to three minutes to communicate their support or lack of support for the project. Mr. Gould had the opportunity to provide a rebuttal.

APC member Paul Navarro suggested that the county first conduct a traffic analysis and effects study before voting on the recommendation. The APC, with few questions and little to no discussion among the members, quickly voted to recommend approval. Paul Navarro was the only dissenting vote.

MLPAC proponents emphasized the possible benefits to the town of Nashville and the tourism industry, but did not provide a convincing argument as to why this was the best option for the county.

The next step in the process requires the commissioners to listen to input from the citizens and to consider the APC’s recommendation for the zoning change.

I am a fifth-generation Hoosier who has enjoyed hiking, camping, biking and vacationing with my family in Brown County for over 50 years. My wife and I bought property here over 18 years ago with the intent of retiring here full-time, which we did in 2014. The current comprehensive plan identifies the vision for Brown County that I support, but it could be more specific in order to clearly identify what Brown Countians want and do not want regarding change and new development.

Tim Clark is a Brown County resident and is a member of the Brown County Redevelopment Commission. However, he notes: “The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any commission or board.”