South Bend Chocolate founder announces plans for museum and new headquarters on track

SOUTH BEND – Almost eight months after South Bend Chocolate Co. founder Mark Tarner said COVID-19 could have killed his plans to build a new factory, a dinosaur museum and a restaurant west of South Bend International Airport, the entrepreneur says the project has new life.

“I think it’s going to happen,” Tarner said Wednesday while showing reporters dinosaur bones he said he recently excavated in Montana. For now, he’s sunk massive bones and sat on skates in a warehouse behind his company headquarters at 3300 Sample St.

The enthusiasm of the amateur paleontologist paints a very different picture of the one he sent to The Tribune at the end of March, when he said it looked like the project might be dead.

“At that time I was really blue,” Tarner said. “I’ve never had a failure, or a public failure, at this level and it really affected me more mentally than anything else.”

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Tarner said that an immediate and almost total drop in income caused by the economic shutdown from the pandemic had put him on the verge of bankruptcy, and that he had just been “shocked and upset” to learn that the South Bend-Elkhart Regional Development Authority was canceling a $ 500,000 state grant from Indiana for the estimated $ 14 million project because it could not begin construction by April 2021, as guidelines require of the grant.

“It was a difficult time,” he said. “I felt like I was a terminally ill patient. All my money is in the business. I have no 401 (k), no savings. It was dark.”

But Tarner said the federal forgivable Paycheque Protection Program Loans helped him survive. Federal records show he received around $ 1.76 million.

“I know there was (identity theft) fraud (with the PPP program) but I had about two weeks of money left,” he said. “I was paying my bills like I had all my life and the economy stopped. Our sales fell 97% in 96 hours. At the airport, we went from $ 8,000 a day to $ 50. I had employees to maintain. At that time, I didn’t really see a future apart from my personal bankruptcy.

Tarner, who has been digging dinosaur bones in Montana for 20 years, said he has started buying the dinosaur museum concept from other communities and some have expressed interest. But Mayor James Mueller quickly contacted him and urged him not to give up on the idea for the site.

As then-mayor Pete Buttigieg’s director of community investments, Mueller oversaw the city’s initial support for the project, which included annexing the site southwest of the US 31 and US 20 ring road, the connection to the city’s water and sewer pipes and the granting of a property tax. reduction.

“We got wind that he was disheartened and reached out and tried to see what was going on,” Mueller said. “We reassured him that we were optimistic that the pandemic, at least its effect on sales and the economy, was coming out of it. The vaccines were rolling out strongly and we were looking for a strong rebound. And also that there are many people who share his vision in the region.

Mueller said he also told Tarner about two ongoing efforts at the Indiana General Assembly that could help the museum project in the future – an increase in the St. Joseph County Innkeeper Tax this would allow the local hotel-motel tax administration to set up a tourism development fund that could help the museum; and another round of state-funded regional economic development grants came. Tarner said he has applied for one of these very competitive grants again and the state plans to announce the winners next month.

“The vision there has always been big and bold,” Mueller said. “Sometimes it’s harder to find funding sources for big, bold visions, but he tinkered with it. Now that the core business has rebounded, it certainly puts it in a much better position now. “

Stacie Skwarcan has participated in the Tarner Excavation in Montana for the past three summers. She received her bachelor’s degree in earth sciences from the University of Notre Dame and is currently pursuing a doctorate in paleontology at the University of Texas at Austin.

“I think it’s really exciting because you’re digging up these bones that have been covered for at least 150 million years and it’s the first time a human has seen them, so it’s pretty special,” said Skwarcan. “It’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of time because preparing the bones is kind of a tedious process to get them out of the jacket and then clean up all the rocks and sediment attached to them.”

Tarner said he would like to innovate in April and open some aspects of the resort next year. He declined to provide more details, saying he was still in talks with some investors, but this week he said on the museum’s Facebook page that he would arrive in 2023.

He said he hopes the Indiana Dinosaur Museum, which he separately incorporated as a non-profit organization so he can dig on public land and apply for grants, will spark children’s interest in Science.

“I can’t wait to see the kids come in, to see the smiles on their faces,” Tarner said. “Especially after the virus, it gave me another purpose in life.”

Skwarcan, from South Bend, agreed.

“I know when I was little I was really interested in dinosaurs and we had to go to Fort Wayne or Indianapolis to see anything,” Skwarcan said. “So having something here in town will be really great. “


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