When Warsaw was considering building an ice rink in Central Park a few years ago, public notification and deliberation were the norm. Park Board members raised concerns about green space. Feasibility and engineering studies were commissioned. The mayor gave updates on the progress.
When Winona Lake, however, considered building an ice rink, nobody knew. No debates were recorded. No studies were said to be commissioned. Few if any residents were consulted. Instead, residents were greeted – or shocked – by news of the plan once a partial grant had already been secured. What was shocking was not the rink, an idea which most people welcomed, but its obtrusive design and construction in a beloved, historical location. How long was this plan in the works? And why were residents not consulted until a dubious public hearing?
The hearing was advertised with as little fanfare as possible: a one-day, legally-required notice in the Times-Union classifieds, and a brief announcement there on the day of the hearing. (InkFreeNews was able to announce it the day before.) With so little publicity and so little notice, it is not surprising that, as News Now Warsaw reported, only a “handful” of residents showed up.
Another reason for a lack of controversy at the hearing was the lack of meaningful public information about the project prior to news coverage of the hearing. It was only after the hearing that residents learned about the cost of the project, the addition of two outbuildings, an additional parking lot, the destruction of a grove of trees, and even the building’s dimensions. None of these details, all of them controversial, were reported anywhere until after the hearing. This ensured that none who objected – for example, the 633 people who later signed the petition – would object at the hearing. It is egregious that this information was inaccessible online during a pandemic.
Another detail that came out of the meeting was the sole bid on the project by “WL Ice LLC.” According to public record, this entity is none other than Nick Hauck, manager of the Village at Winona, with which the company shares chief officers and an address. In other words, the people behind the Village formed a new company and bid on their own project, a project costing more than twice as much as the estimate for the proposed rink in Warsaw. It is not unreasonable to ask how much money they are making on it, or when the deal was truly made.
When the council was asked if other companies were given the chance to bid, Craig Allebach said, “we advertised for proposals and WL Ice was the only proposal we received.” An advertisement for proposals ran for two days in the classifieds. Much like the sparse attendance at the public hearing, some residents fear that the reason the council did not receive other proposals is because it didn’t want to receive them.
What is most frustrating about the controversy is the lack of information and clarity about these issues. That some residents have begun to fear the worst is only due to the silence of the developers and their unwillingness to engage. Even if they have not behaved shamefully in private, they have done so in public. Their actions reveal their belief that discussion, debate, and free speech are undesirable. Furthermore, they made a condescending assumption that residents of my town would not blink an eye.
They were wrong. I urge anyone who loves Winona Lake to ask questions now, while there is still time.