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Davich: Soliday backs off incendiary email demands; real issue is hotel tax funds

Soliday

Soliday

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Updated: May 11, 2013 6:35AM



Indiana state Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, would rather have not responded to me, and Lorelei Weimer, executive director of Indiana Dunes Tourism, chose not to respond at all.

But something needs to be cleared up publicly, I believe, involving Soliday, Weimer, and the lingering feud between her Porter County agency and the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority in Lake County and its CEO Speros Batistatos.

If you recall, tempers flared last month over efforts to change the language of Senate Bill 585, specifically the word “region” vs. “county,” allowing the SSCVA to change the way hotel and motel tax is distributed in Lake County and possibly in Porter County.

Soliday admittedly lost his cool regarding the actions of a lobbyist for Indiana Dunes Tourism (and other eastward tourism bureaus) to get this done. In a series of emails mistakenly sent from Soliday to a Post-Tribune correspondent, he vented his ire about Weimer and the “heavy-handed” lobbyist, Brett Ashton.

Simply put, he told Porter County mayors and commissioners that either Weimer is dismissed from her job or he will resign. Neither happened, of course, a good thing for our region. Both care deeply about Porter County and Northwest Indiana.

Earlier this week, Soliday told me that the email was “pure hyperbole” and he didn’t want Weimer fired. Nor would he ever consider leaving the legislature at the busiest time of year with a month before it ends.

He did, however, want to get Weimer’s attention in order to stop bringing her agency’s “never ending feud” with the SSCVA into important Indiana Statehouse business.

SB 585 contains significant economic development legislation for Northwest Indiana, including reshaping Gary/Chicago International Airport, implementing a 1 percent county income tax, funding a feasibility study for expanding the Port of Indiana into Lake County, and a study on a potential teaching hospital and trauma center.

The potential language to be added to that bill, Soliday noted, was prompted by the city of Valparaiso’s contract with the SSCVA to sponsor a girls softball championship event last summer.

“It was so successful for their restaurants and hotels that they, the city of Portage, and Porter County commissioners wanted to explore doing further amateur sports venues with Lake County in the future,” Soliday said.

But the years-long tussle between Lake County’s SSCVA and Porter County’s Indiana Dunes Tourism got in the way. Soliday wanted no part of it in light of the legislation’s regional importance and time crunch to get it passed.

The only issue, he told me, was the ongoing debate about the role of tourism and use of hotel tax revenue between Porter County mayors and commissioners on one side, and allegedly Weimer on the other side.

It’s no secret that Weimer and Batistatos don’t get along, and she obviously interpreted the bill’s language — “county” vs. “region” — as a veiled attempt for Batistatos to begin takeover of her county’s tourism agency. It’s also no secret that Batistatos has pushed for such a regional merger for many years, and that Weimer and her colleagues have fought it.

Plus, no Porter County legislator from either side of the political aisle would ever allow this to happen, I’m told by a few sources.

“It is just not in the cards,” Soliday noted.

One Indiana Dunes tourism official called Soliday’s publicly leaked “she or me” ultimatum a “bull-(expletive) tactic to get his way.”

The bigger issue here, the official insisted, is the pending legislation involving the hotel tax money, which has since been stripped from SB 585. Soliday instead wrote a separate bill, House Bill 1635, which is still in committee. The bill removes requirements that the SSCVA “may use funds under its control only for events in the county.”

Meanwhile, the Porter County Board of Commissioners has reorganized the Indiana Dunes Tourism board, and Soliday has met personally with Weimer and other officials, a nearly three-hour meeting of the minds, last Friday.

“I was pleased with the outcome of the meeting,” Soliday told me afterward. “We should be able to go about the people’s business now.”

In another words, the still-ongoing feud between the county’s tourism bureaus can be kept out of General Assembly business for the next three weeks or so.

“What becomes difficult for a legislator is when local elected and appointed officials, and their employees, are pulling in three different directions and then drag the fight into the statehouse with taxpayer-paid lobbyists,” Soliday said.

The bigger issue here is what direction Porter County officials and tourism board members will take regarding what they want to achieve in the long term in this region.

Weimer, who I’ve known for many years and admire as a top-notch tourism expert, is by no means alone in her leeriness of the SSCVA. But, as I’ve written before, this feud does nothing positive for Northwest Indiana, and serves only as a microcosm for our region’s reputation of being fractured, dysfunctional and politically motivated.

Find more of Jerry’s writings on Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, and jerrydavich.wordpress.com. Listen to Jerry’s “Casual Fridays” radio show each Friday at noon on WLPR, 89.1-FM, streaming at www.lakeshore
publicmedia.org.



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