Many people used to see the Little Calumet River as little more than a murky polluted ditch prone to nasty flooding, but now it is increasingly being looked at as a potential backdrop for restaurants and other businesses.
A three-decade-long, $275 million levee project is expected to open up 1,500 acres of once-marginal land near the river for economic development. Much of the affected land is along the Interstate 80/94 corridor and would have been considered prime for development long ago, if it had not been in a flood zone.
A new brewpub, a Walmart superstore, restaurants and other shops are planned near the Little Calumet River in Hammond, and other communities the river cuts through are eying its potential. One town official said the waterway could be cleaned and redeveloped the way the Cuyahoga River was in Cleveland.
Highland has created a riverfront redevelopment district, a strategy that has also been pursued by West Lafayette, South Bend and a growing number of Indiana cities. The town would like to see restaurants and potentially medical research or high-tech office buildings just south of Hammond's Oxbow Landing, where the Hammond Station Restaurant and Brewery and neighboring shops are planned.
Officials in Griffith have discussed ideas such as a wild-game restaurant and a man-made lake with a place to rent canoes. Gary could explore the possibility of enhancing green space and adding more trails along the river near Broadway, where such amenities could add to its University Park neighborhood redevelopment effort.
Griffith would first need to get a levee moved further north to take more land out of the flood zone, and Highland would have to relocate its Department of Public Works building and Sharp Athletic Complex to free up land. Both towns have been working to lay the groundwork for private developers to plant new businesses near the river.
"The thinking is different. Since they built up the levee from the flooding, there's been consideration of how the river could be an asset," said Cecile Petro, Highland's redevelopment director. "The river always was just a negative before."
Highland designated a riverfront development district along the Little Calumet in the hope that restaurants would be interested in potentially lucrative three-way liquor licenses that cost only $1,000, or far less than they would normally fetch at auction.
Lafayette, West Lafayette, South Bend and Columbus all recently set up such districts in the hope that cheap permits to sell beer, wine and liquor would spur more development in their downtowns. Hobart ever recently established such a district in its downtown, capitalizing on Lake George.
A lot of the land along the Little Calumet River still cannot be built upon, such as ground that is inside the levee, said Spencer Cortwright, an associate professor of biology at Indiana University Northwest. He and his students maintain more than 50 acres of prairie and wetlands as a nature preserve along the Little Calumet River just north of the IUN parking lot in Gary.
Cortwright started removing invasive weeds from that area in the late 1990s and began seeing the native prairie he was nurturing start to flourish in 2004. He has focused on restoring the land to its natural state since there was too little of it to build upon and it was too close to the levee.
About 22 miles of levees and flood walls stretch through Gary, Griffith, Hammond, Highland and Muster, and other areas along the Little Calumet River have far more nearby land to build on. Outdoor retailer Cabela's built a 185,000-square-foot superstore on a spot near the river where it would have been cost-prohibitive to locate before the Little Calumet River Basin Development Commission built up the levees.
That site – south of Interstate 80/94 and just off Indianapolis Boulevard – had long been a country club golf course. Intensive development such as a superstore would have been impossible before the levee project, said Dan Repay, executive director of the commission. The property was in a flood zone that would have required a costly elevation of the building's foundation and flood insurance that would have been too expensive to justify.
The often devastating overflow from the river has long kept developers and businesses at bay. Cities and towns still must be careful to ensure there are retention ponds, underground basins or other adequate drainage so new development does not contribute to more flooding, Repay said.
But the levees are designed to control flooding and can in some places eliminate the requirement for businesses to buy flood insurance so long as the embankments are properly maintained and continue to meet federal standards.
Highland has been looking to take advantage of the reclaimed river by relocating its public works building and later the athletic complex off Kennedy Avenue to free up about 30 acres of land for development, Petro said. The river could be an asset people could enjoy while dining al fresco or that office workers could stroll along during breaks.
The town has looked at the possibility of a riverside promenade, a gussied-up path for people bike between downtown and the planned riverfront district, and maybe another pedestrian bridge across to Hammond's Oxbow Landing.
Flossmoor Station Restaurant and Brewery plans to build a brewpub in Hammond just north of the river, and there also has been interest in a family entertainment center, a specialty veterinary facility and a store similar to Mars Cheese Castle, a well-known Wisconsin-based purveyor of cheeses and meats.
Four different restaurants have expressed interest in Oxbow Landing, including in a riverfront parcel that would let them have an outdoor patio with views of the Little Cal, said Phil Taillon, executive director of the city's department of planning and development.
Additional development is planned near the Little Cal further west in Hammond. As many as 10 more businesses – potentially stores, a hotel and a few sit-down restaurants – are expected to locate near the Cabela's and Walmart, Tallion said. The new 190,000-square-foot Walmart should break ground next spring.
"The cost of building up the property made it impractical under the previous conditions, but now it's a lot more attractive to developers," he said.
Gary has no concrete plans for development along the Little Calumet River at this point, but could look at enhancing green space and adding another riverfront trail near Broadway, said J. Forest Hayes, director of the city's Commerce Department. Such amenities could fit in with the University Park redevelopment district that would include a new IUN performing arts center, mixed-use and retail buildings along Broadway, and in-fill housing that college students could afford.
"There's the potential there for biking or walking," he said. "There's a holistic attempt to develop a new neighborhood with a good quality of life, where students could actually live closer to the institution, and have options for eating and dining."
Griffith has been working with an engineering firm to convince the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to move a levee further north, so as remove more land from the flood zone and encourage development along the Little Cal, clerk-treasurer George Jerome said. The goal is to redevelop the former Griffith Golf Center off Cline Avenue.
"The town would benefit from something that would pay a lot of taxes," he said. "Once the levee is in place, we could look at retail, light industrial, maybe a hotel. A casino would be beautiful, but we haven't honed in on anything and would have to have discussions with developers."
The town owns 52 acres of land along the Little Calumet River it hopes will be developed, and could use tax-increment financing dollars to put in infrastructure. Ball State University students who did a planning study for the town suggested the area would be ideal for a canoe livery, and maybe a seafood or wild game restaurant.
The idea of canoeing down the Little Calumet River may have once seemed inconceivable, but times are changing, Jerome said.
"Twenty-five years from now, it could be a recreational river," he said. "When I was young, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was filthy. Now if you go to Cleveland, it's upscale restaurants and boats. It just takes time and money and commitment."