Will Downtown's biggest and grandest hotel yet be built by a team headed by one of Democratic Mayor Bart Peterson's major political donors? Or by a rival group that includes a former Republican Party operative and one of Indiana's richest businessmen?
A mayoral committee will recommend one of the two competing hotel proposals later this month, in a politically charged decision that will commit millions of dollars in city money to a skyline-changing project.
One option is a soaring 44-story tower that would hold a luxury hotel under the banner of British-based InterContinental Hotel Corp. It would rise on Pan Am Plaza, across from the main entrance to the RCA Dome, but the team has yet to buy the site.
The team's lead developer is Michael G. Browning, a major Peterson contributor who originally developed Pan Am Plaza.
The other proposal is a cluster of four Marriott-brand hotels, with the flagship a 25-story JW Marriott Hotel holding 800 to 1,000 rooms. The Marriott team's deep-pocketed investors include Whiteco Industries of Merrillville, controlled by 83-year-old billionaire Dean V. White. Its lead developer is one of Browning's former business partners, Michael W. Wells, who now runs REI Real Estate Services in Carmel and was once campaign manager for a Republican mayor.
Each team is asking for about the same amount of city subsidies -- $40 million to $55 million to help pay for a huge new ballroom, a parking garage and pedestrian walkways linked to the Indiana Convention Center.
Let's answer the first question. It's politics stupid. Of course the Mayor is going to take care of his close friend and biggest political supporter, Michael Browning. Does anyone think he's going to reward Michael Wells? Remember, former Mayor Steve Goldsmith (R) gave the development rights to the site of what's now the Conrad Hilton to Wells, only to have it taken away from him by Mayor Peterson so Peterson could reward his political cronies with his first big downtown development deal. While the selection committee members, including city-county councilors Monroe Gray and Marilyn Pfisterer, insist the selection committee will not play favorites, the deck is already stacked in favor of the InterContinental proposal pushed by Browning. Gray told Swiatek: "I'm kind of neutral. I'm waiting to see the final presentations." Gray, of course, initially denied having any role in the 300 East bar at the Julia Carson Government Center. It later turned out his wife owned an interest in the bar, along with the man Mayor Peterson appointed as President of the Indianapolis Airport Authority, Lacy Johnson. Browning, coincidentally, is a client of Lacy Johnson's.
The next question is why the city feels it necessary to offer a tax subsidy to yet another business venture downtown. Swiatek writes, "The city is willing to put taxpayer money into a privately owned mega-hotel because it would help lure more and larger conventions, boosting spending on hotels, restaurants, rental cars and the like." Now remember that taxpayers are already forking over close to $300 million to expand the convention center to lay the golden egg in the form of larger conventions to fill up downtown hotels. The city would have us believe that noone would risk building a large hotel adjacent to the expanded convention center unless the city provides a substantial subsidy for the project. Here is a very telling item within Swiatek's story about Marriott's plan to build a new hotel regardless of the outcome of the city's selection process:
If Marriott team loses the contest, it likely will go ahead and build one or more of its proposed hotels anyway, adding 500 to 600 rooms, Wells said.
That news "might make financing a lot more difficult" for the InterContinental project, by providing more competition to it, Wells pointed out.
Also missing from the discussion is the Hyatt Hotel. Simon recently moved its employees out of that building to its new corporate headquarters across the street, opening up a lot of vacant space in the building, which could be easily converted to new hotel rooms to support more convention business. The city's excuse then will be that none of them have a large enough ballroom to support the increased convention trade--that's because the city is removing the ballroom it has in its existing facility and not including plans for one in the expanded facility.
So it seems we're left with the proverbial question: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? In this case, the answer is whichever one assures a huge financial windfall for one of the Mayor's cronies.