State upholds decision denying Indiana Dunes liquor license

AP News
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Posted: Oct 06, 2015 5:10 PM

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — State officials have upheld a decision denying a liquor license to a politically connected developer who won a contract to bring a restaurant, bar and banquet hall to lakefront state park property lining Indiana's towering dunes.

The state Alcohol and Tobacco Commission voted 4-0 Tuesday, siding with a local board that denied a license to Chuck Williams in September. Williams says the decision imperils the whole multi-million dollar project to rehabilitate and build out the park's dilapidated pavilion, which is nestled among the dunes molded over thousands of years at the southern tip of Lake Michigan.

Though Williams made a convincing argument that alcohol sales are needed to make the project viable, his need for alcohol sales doesn't "translate to a need for (those) services in the neighborhood and the community," Chairman David Cook said of the Porter County board's 3-1 vote rejecting Williams' permit application.

Williams did not attend the hearing, and a spokeswoman for his group Pavilion Partners did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The decision can be appealed and Williams could ultimately take the matter to court.

For five years, Williams worked behind the scenes on the project with state Department of Natural Resources officials, securing a decades-long privatization deal. But once the project was formally announced last March, it was engulfed in controversy amid accusations that Williams used political clout to get a sweetheart deal, working with the state long before the project went out to bid.

Williams, a high-ranking state Republican Party official who has donated handsomely to GOP causes, has denied his political connections played a role, and the Indiana DNR says it followed state and federal laws and did not give Williams preferential treatment. However, legal experts have said the deal raises red flags and amounts to a long-term give-away of cherished public parkland. They questioned why the state didn't seek additional bids on the project. The only competing offer came from a nonprofit group of local conservationists, lawyers and finance professionals.

Local liquor boards are given significant discretion under state law and have wide-ranging authority to approve or deny requests for alcohol permits. Cook indicated the Porter County alcohol board acted in good faith and widely publicized the meeting where Williams' application was heard. Before reaching a decision, proponents and opponents were allowed to offer detailed testimony during a four-hour long hearing. Many who later wrote letters in support of Williams' project were actually from Illinois, Cook said.

Commission Vice Chairman David Coleman questioned why the state ceded so much control of the building to Williams.

"I think it's the state's duty to keep that building in tip-top shape and they just haven't done it. It should be the tax payers sharing equally in that burden," Coleman said.