Does Opposition to Bloomington’s Upzoning Reflect Other Positions?

By Peter Dorfman

The upzoning of Bloomington is going to be a high-profile issue in the citywide election campaigns for Mayor and Council in 2023. Opposition to the city’s revision of its Unified Development Ordinance to open single-family-zoned neighborhoods to duplex development was widespread and sparked a lot of anti-incumbent sentiment. But is there more to it? Does opposing the upzoning of Bloomington’s core neighborhoods to increase their density map consistently to any other policy positions?

A little poll I ran this month suggests that there could be verifiable overlaps between anti-upzoning sentiment and other issues — such as the Mayor’s pursuit of an expanded convention center in Bloomington.

I keep in touch with a largish number of people — roughly 700 — with whom I share a position against citywide densification. I got acquainted with these people during the controversy and local government hearings leading up to the City of Bloomington’s. Most of them were signatories to an online petition posted in 2020 on the Stop Bloomington Upzoning website. Some were people I’d known and worked with since early 2019, when Mayor John Hamilton’s upzoning proposal first arose.

I’ve been curious as to whether opposition to this ill-conceived policy is consistent with any other positions that might be important differentiators in next year’s citywide election (or this year’s county election, for that matter).

While 700 people might represent only about 0.8% of Bloomington’s population, these are politically motivated individuals in what is generally an apathetic city. The real electorate, based on turnout in recent Bloomington elections, is something like 8000 actual voters. If you accept that estimate, then the cohort I talk to actually represents almost 9% of the people who actually show to vote here — and almost certainly is representative of a much larger segment of the electorate who have never heard of the  Dissident Democrat.

So a couple of weeks ago I generated a survey to gauge sentiment, among people I already know oppose the upzoning, on Mayor Hamilton’s proposal for the city to buy out Monroe County’s interest in the Convention Center and move forward on expanding it. The survey consisted of basically one question: I offered a series of possible positions on the proposal, and asked respondents to choose which of them best represented their own opinions on the idea.

There were 157 responses (a response rate of about 22%). The results are shown in the graph at the head of this post.

  • A substantial plurality — 50 respondents or about 32% — opposed the Mayor’s entire proposal for the convention center. Another 22 individuals (14%) felt their opinions were best represented by this response: “Convention center? That’s so ’90s. Why do we even have one?” Seven (4.5%) actually selected both of these responses.
  • Twenty-six respondents (16.6%) indicated they supported expansion of the Convention Center, but not the Mayor’s proposal to take control of the facility and the expansion process. Four people chose the opposite take — they support the city’s buyout of the county’s interest in the Convention Center, but oppose expanding it.
  • Another four people approved of the city’s buyout, but suggested the county should hold out for a better deal than the Mayor is offering before handing over the keys.
  • How many respondents supported the Mayor’s buyout and expansion proposal? Twenty-two, or 14% of the sample.
  • The same number — 22 — indicated they had no opinion on the proposal.

What does this mean with respect to consensus among upzoning opponents regarding the Mayor’s Convention Center buyout and expansion idea? Respondents were invited to provide freeform comments, and those are more illuminating than the raw numbers.

Opponents of both the city’s takeover of the convention center and its expansion expressed concern about the rate and appropriateness of the city’s spending, and questioned the prioritization of the project by comparison with other uses of tax funds.

Respondents who questioned the need for a convention center altogether suggest that the city and development advocates have not made a transparent case that Bloomington is a competitive candidate for convention business — or for that matter that it should be competing for that traffic. These respondents question the opportunity cost of convention center investment, relative to other uses of taxpayer funds.

Expansion does have its proponents among this survey’s respondents — those who view conventions as a business with a future, and who see potential in an upgraded facility, which they agree is undersized and “tired.” Opinions clearly are mixed, however, on the wisdom of handing the project over to the city. Among those who support expansion but not the city’s takeover, comments were particularly cynical about the leadership (and the motivations) of Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton.

Some suggested the county would be unwise to let go of potential revenues from the facility; a handful suggested Monroe County drive a harder bargain before letting go of the convention center. (Unfortunately, none of these respondents chose to elaborate.)

The group who professed no opinion on the convention centers expressed attitudes more thoughtful than their noncommittal response suggests. This group has much in common with the cohort who wondered why Bloomington even has a convention center. What many of them were saying was that they didn’t know enough about the economic viability of the convention center business, although there was cynicism in this group also about the Mayor’s leadership.

In short, among a segment of Bloomington’s electorate known to oppose the city’s 2021 upzoning, a clear majority also oppose the Mayor’s plan to make the Monroe County Convention Center an asset of the city and expand its footprint. There is diversity within this sample, and some respondents have doubts about the viability of the business model; others evinced mistrust of the city’s administration, either to run an expanded facility effectively  or to do so with the best interests of the county — or taxpayers in the city — in mind. A link between the upzoning and convention center issues is unproven, but provocatively suggested.

Here are representative samples of the survey’s verbatim comments, organized by response grouping.

I oppose both the city’s takeover and the expansion.

Bloomington city government is spending tax dollars way too fast and not for the benefit of longtime Bloomington residents.  Taxes are soaring and again not being spent on what we need or even responsibly. For example planning says a simple speed bump costs $5000 and that is just the tip of the iceberg.”

“I would hate for Bton to be overrun by visitors every week who would also fill up the restaurants, parking spaces, and city streets even more than the IU students and their families and other IU alums already do.  I think there is a nice balance at this point.  Businesses are handling the amount of traffic from non-residents, but are still available for the local folks.  I truly think there are MANY much more serious issues that should be addressed LONG before we discuss the Convention Center.”

Convention center? That’s so ’90s. Why do we even have one?

I know from a recent column from the business community that it gets SOME business. But I’d like to understand a lot more about who is actually booking events there – how much is IU overflow, for instance. I think the space would be better utilized as housing for low-income/homeless people.”

 “There are many large venues for visitors bureau or chamber to think outside the box including the university, however expensive that may be. Does the current convention center calendar fill? How large are the groups that use it? Are there bldgs such as schools, Switchyard  or churches that could collaborate for events? Need more info. It’s not a bldg that brings folks here so far as I know, but the old historic bldgs, fab restaurants, nature (?), and parks. Another bldg? Meh.”

“It seems like the city could better spend its dollars on other things, like more everyday programs to mitigate the climate crisis: helping average homeowners with insulation and energy audits, that kind of basic activity. There are plenty of hotels and meeting rooms in town [so] if organizations want to come, bring them on. Lotus happens as do other community events and the current convention center is used, even though it’s  not such a great venue…”

“The whole concept has been a white elephant since its inception. We need to make it go away, it serves no useful purpose.”

“I have lived here for 23 years, which includes the Golden Age of National Conventions (1990’s). Bloomington is not a very convenient place to hold medium size conventions (too far from a major airport) and IU does a good job hosting smaller ones. Indianapolis is actually a much better city with more interesting venues… Also, unless Indiana Legislature changes, I worry that many liberal-leaning organizations will boycott holding conventions in Indiana due to SB1.”

“The whole concept of conventions is not so appealing anymore.  Lots of drinking, partying, overpriced dinners, lectures to skip, convention booths manned by the industries’ best sales force, outrageous fees, event t-shirts and funny hats, meetings held in private, going out on the town, drinking until dawn and giving cause to miss the presentations during the day, maybe sowing some oats in a field far enough from home to be considered safe …I think it would behoove the Mayor, if he has pockets full of money to spend, that he invest in storm sewers, sanitary sewers, plus curb and gutter for the city, coordinating the traffic signals so we can keep the traffic flowing and don’t have thousands of cars a day sitting spewing out pollution waiting for the lights to change, and taking some responsibility for the homeless and sheltered poor below the poverty line in our city. Nah, really, Who needs a Convention Center?  We need a Senior Citizen Center!  And, we need a Community Social Purpose Center.  How about that for a step into the future?”

I support expansion of the Convention Center, but not the city’s takeover.

“Before public money is spent on what is essentially economic development strategy, the entities that control the convention center must show the citizens of Bloomington exactly what they intend to do and why that public investment is in the community’s best interest.”

“A convention center in a small city with a lot of rural residents in the county should be inclusive. The county tends to be more conservative in financing, which might provide a counterbalance to the city.”

“Expansion could bring more business to town which might not be a bad thing. The current set up is too small for many gatherings.  More tax income from non residents could help the county and cities coffers.  I would hope that there would be a gift shop somewhere in there that could be another venue for sales by local artists (I am one) that could reach a population that wouldn’t normally get to our galleries. They’d better include a parking garage though since this town has a dearth of available parking-especially  in the downtown area… The current city administration just seems a bit too greedy to me at this point. However, in the future if the only way this could go forward is having it run jointly by county and city, that would be all right.”

“Indiana University is the main driver of the economy in Bloomington, not The City of Bloomington although some officials try to act like Bloomington is not dependent on IU.  A Monroe County-Bloomington Convention Center could help strengthen the County’s brand.”

I support the city’s takeover of the Convention Center, but oppose expansion.

“Expanding the Convention Center seems redundant, since we already have a full calendar of similar events held at the National Guard Armory and at Binford Elementary School — not to mention at IU.”

“There is no way that a city convention center can compete with the IU convention center:  the result would be too many convention centers and not enough conventions.”

I support the city’s takeover of the Convention Center, but the county should hold out for a better deal.

I support the city’s takeover and expansion of the Convention Center.

Really, I support the expansion of the CC [but]I am reluctant for the current Mayor to run anything.”

“All this depends on costs and demand for the space.  The current facility is ‘tired,’  and not up to date.  IU was a substitute for events at the convention center in the past, but seems to have moved away from that business.  The county’s role in a downtown Bloomington facility has been questionable from the start.”

“The convention center could be a much better resource for the city than it has been. I’d like to see what the city can do with it.. I like urban fabric and am interested in what the city could do.”

*shrug* I have no opinion on this.

 “I just don’t know enough about the details to form an opinion. I basically do not trust anything John Hamilton and his minions decide so my knee jerk reaction is to not like the idea. It seems that the City government cannot get along with anyone  in county government to accomplish anything.”

“I suppose they need to waste more money while providing no services to citizens. My opinion on the convention center is based on what else might have been done with the funds, such as taking over the lost youth center, Rhino’s.  I imagine some people think of conventions as moneymakers but I don’t know the facts on that.”

 “More interested in the $ amounts involved, both the buyout and the projected expansion costs?  Also, where is the money going to come from?”

“I have read the Chamber’s argument that hotels, restaurants and shops in Bloomington suffer from the cyclical student body and that a Convention facility (whatever the size) is needed to help fill the gaps where revenue is lost. Will it become too large and expensive to attract smaller meetings/shows? I’m for growth if there is clear reasoning behind it. The city might have more buy-in (than the county) to cultivate business at a convention center because most dollars will be spent in the city limits.”

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