For almost 40 years, the Hiatt family has owned a copy center and printing store in Muncie, Ind. In 1985, Dave and Jane Hiatt added a satellite store on the Ball State University campus—open 16 hours a day, 364 days a year—to better accommodate students. Their son, Chris, now runs Hiatt Printing and also heads Citizens of Delaware County for Good Government, a local taxpayers’ rights organization. But now Chris is getting steamrolled by Ball State.
On September 5, 2012, the university’s Board of Trustees authorized using eminent domain against Hiatt Printing. The largest employer in Muncie, Ball State wants to seize Chris’ print shop to build the McKinley Commons, a $25.9 million hotel, dorm, and conference center. If built, the commons would house 51 students and 112 hotel rooms. Since it’s a hybrid hotel-dorm, it would also act as a “living-learninweg laboratory” for hospitality and food management majors. The project would be funded by issuing tax-exempt revenue bonds.
To defend eminent domain, the university argues that since Hiatt Printing is close to the center of campus and two parking garages, it’s needed to build the commons. Ball State also claims the hotel-dorm serves a “public use,” because Muncie has a lack of hotel space, while Ball State needs more dorm rooms. In addition, McKinley Commons would create new jobs and generate income by leasing out space to restaurants.
In response, Chris criticized the university for using eminent domain as “a convenient vehicle” to satisfy “their own ‘capitalistic wish-lists’”:
Condemnation and the seizure of private property is, as it should be, reserved for the most serious of circumstances for which there are no reasonable alternatives and is absolutely necessary for the overall general public welfare or good. It is not a convenient vehicle for psuedo-government entities such as Ball State to use to seize private property for their own “capitalistic wish-lists” for which there are many alternatives. Therefore, we strongly disagree with Ball State’s assessment that they can successfully meet the “public use threshold” in this proposed project.
Hiatt was also concerned that the university already dominates the local economy:
Ball State competes with the hotel industry. They compete with the food and beverage industry. They compete with the housing market. They compete with the local economy in at least all those arenas and more. If they had their way, they would control the whole market.
Moved by Chris’ plight, State Senator Doug Eckerty (R-Yorktown) introduced SB 54 to reign in this sort of eminent domain power. This bill would have mandated state universities to pay business owners not only the fair market value, but also compensation for the loss of estimated future earnings. But after pressure from Ball State, the bill died in committee.
Back in 2006, Indiana’s legislature overwhelmingly passed HB 1010 to limit eminent domain, earning a B from the Institute for Justice. The bill redefined “public use” and explicitly states that “the term does not include the public benefit of economic development, including an increase in a tax base, tax revenues, employment, or general economic health.”