INDIANAPOLIS – State parks have been mostly “dry” for decades, but that could change if state officials clear the way for alcohol sales in hopes of pulling in more visitors and revenue.
Lawmakers may allow the Department of Natural Resources to secure liquor licenses for all 32 parks and reservoirs, bypassing county alcohol boards. If the measure succeeds, the proposal could fast-track plans to expand alcohol sales on state properties where booze has traditionally been banned.
Parks officials, who back the bill, say it allows them to respond more quickly to a growing demand from park visitors to imbibe. Also, their venues could compete with those where alcohol is currently served.
Dan Bortner, director of the state park inns, says the bill simply expands upon what the state has already started in securing liquor licenses for seven inns within the last few years. Those licenses are currently used for private events at the inns, such as wedding receptions.
This measure allows the state to seek liquor licenses for another 25 state park properties. It would allow for beer, wine, and liquor sales by the glass at all park properties.
The House passed the bill Tuesday, sending it over the Senate for further debate.
Opponents say more drinking in the parks will lead to bad behavior and disrupt one of the parks' best features - the peaceful calm.
“You don’t have to have liquor everywhere,” said Pam Rearick, a Chesteron resident who has fought to keep nearby Indiana Dunes State Park from getting a liquor license.
Last fall, the Porter County liquor board denied a license request, turning away a developer who wanted to open a bar, restaurant and banquet facility in an historic building in the park.
That prompted the legislation, by Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, creating the work-around for the Department of Natural Resources.
Eberhart's proposal allows the state Alcohol Commission to directly grant liquor licenses to state parks for “economic development." The commission may grant a license for a park under the bill, even if it exceeds the limit on licenses in the area.
The measure does not allow for carry-out alcohol to be sold, for example, in camp stores. Nor does it lift the general prohibition on park users from bringing their own alcohol to consume.
Rearick and opponents like her say they can see an influx of bars and restaurants opening in state parks, competing against local establishments.
Bortner said he doesn’t envision that but rather sees more private events where alcohol is served.
He does concede that the Department of Natural Resources has already started talking about putting alcohol on menus at its inns as soon as this summer, to test demand.
“If it’s controlled, we don’t see a problem with it,” he said.
Such an offering could bring more patrons, and money, at a time when the department is under pressure to generate revenue to support its properties after several years of budget cuts.
State Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, introduced a similar, failed bill in the Senate, citing the alcohol-less Fort Benjamin Harrison State Park in his district.
“Alcohol is an economic driver," he said.
Already, private vendors sell alcohol in restaurants located on two state properties - at Lake Monroe and Brookville Lake.
Bortner said state officials have not experienced “massive concerns” with alcohol abuse in those places.
Maureen Hayden covers the Indiana Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden