Year in review

The top business stories of 2013

2013-12-28T23:00:00Z 2013-12-29T22:56:05Z The top business stories of 2013By Keith Benman, Joseph Pete and Vanessa Renderman Times Staff Writers nwitimes.com

NWI housing market goes on a roll in 2013

Northwest Indiana home sales continued to heat up in 2013, increasing every month of the year through November on a year-over-year basis. In most months there were double-digit percentage increases in sales volumes, promising the best home sales year since before the recession hit in 2007.

Home prices made gains in Northwest Indiana, but price increases were far below those in other parts of the nation. Local Realtors noted a tightening in supply as the year went forward and said onerous credit restrictions are sometimes getting in the way of sales.

NIPSCO unveils modernization plans, rate hikes

NIPSCO became the first utility in the state to take advantage of new legislation to propose $1 billion in electric system improvements in July and a cumulative 6 percent rate hike to pay for them. In October, the utility followed up with a $713 million natural gas improvement plan with a proposed cumulative 10 percent rate hike.

Both the improvement plans and the rate hikes much be approved by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission before they can be implemented.

The rate hikes would be gradual. NIPSCO estimates electric customers will only see a slight increase of 0.5 percent in bills in 2015 and then 1 percent annual increases after that through 2020. Natural gas customers would see an increase of 1 percent in 2015 followed by annual increases that would average 1.4 percent per year through 2020.

Allegiant stops Gary/Chicago International Airport flights

In August, Allegiant airline ceased flying from Gary/Chicago International Airport to Orlando/Sanford International Airport in Florida. The flight cessation left the Gary airport with no regularly scheduled passenger service.

Allegiant started service between the two airports in February 2012 after some fits and starts in getting flights underway at Gary. When service ended in August, Airline officials cited a lack of demand for the flights as the reason for ending the them.

Airport officials said there were enough people taking the flights but they were not buying the car rentals and hotel reservation packages Allegiant relies on for much of its income.

Franciscan feels job cuts

Franciscan Alliance cut 275 employees at its 11 hospitals and health care facilities in Indiana in October. Of those, 112 employees worked in the northern Indiana region of the company, which includes five local hospital campuses.

The Mishawaka-based company runs Franciscan St. Margaret Health hospitals in Dyer and Hammond, Franciscan St. Anthony Health hospitals in Crown Point and Michigan City and Franciscan Healthcare in Munster, among other facilities.

Cuts were made in administrative, management, supervisory, clinical and nonclinical sectors.

In September, Franciscan laid off 125 people at Franciscan St. James hospitals in Chicago Heights and Olympia Fields as well as several outpatient centers.

NWI gaming boat revenues sink through most of 2013

It was a rocky year for Northwest Indiana's casinos, with casino revenues declining for nine of the year's first 11 months on a year-over-year basis. Those declines have slowed in recent months and in November the region notched an overall 2.7 percent gain in casino revenues.

The verdict is still out on how much the introduction of video slots in Illinois taverns and social clubs is affecting the Northwest Indiana casinos. Indiana casinos won a legislative victory in the spring when the Indiana General Assembly approved legislation granting tax deductions for $5 million per year in free slot play at each casino that offers it.

Starwood Capital buys Southlake Mall, brings back original name

Southlake Mall in Hobart got its original name back after it was bought by Starwood Capital Group.

The private investment firm closed on a $1.64 billion deal to buy controlling interest in seven malls from the Australian conglomerate Westfield Group, which kept a 10 percent share. The new owner immediately stripped the Westfield name from the 1.4 million-square-foot, two-story super-regional mall at U.S. 30 and Mississippi Street in Hobart.

Westfield bought the mall in 2002 for $756 million.

The new owner formed Starwood Retail Partners to oversee its bulked-up portfolio of malls, and left the existing on-site management team in place in Hobart. Starwood promised to bring fresh ideas to its malls, but did not immediately announce any plans.

NWI follows industry trend of bank consolidations

Larger banks bought out smaller financial institutions, in keeping with an industry trend.

Muncie-based First Merchants bought Munster-based First Financial, and laid off 80 redundant back-office employees. Munster-based Peoples Bank agreed to acquire Hammond-based First Federal Savings and Loan Association, which had been looking for a buyer for about a year.

Horizon Bancorp, the parent company of Michigan City-based Horizon Bank, grew its footprint in Michigan after buying the smaller Summit Community Bank through a stock and cash merger valued at $18.4 million.

Finally, Rosemont, Ill.-based Wintrust Financial Corp. reached an agreement to buy the Lansing-based parent of First National Bank of Illinois for an estimated $38.5 million.

State Line Energy Plant sold

Former State Line Energy Plant in Hammond was sold after being shut down because of pollution concerns. The owners of Bermsterboer Slag Co. bought the former power plant on Lake Michigan's southern shore, which had provided electricity to Northwest Indiana and Chicago for more than eight decades.

New owner Alan Bermsterboer said his ideas for the 34-acre parcel on the Illinois border included lakefront housing, an expanded marina for pleasure boats and a bike trail along with lake.

He said redevelopment likely would follow the Marquette Plan, a regional strategy to recapture 75 percent of the lakeshore for public use, and transform Lake Michigan's shoreline from a belt of heavy industry to a place where people can live, work, play and stay.

Enbridge replaces 45-year-old pipeline

About 30 Enbridge Energy Partners LP work crews installed a $1.5 billion pipeline that carried crude oil from Canada and the Dakotas to Midwestern refineries, including the BP facility in Whiting.

An estimated 650 workers installed the Line 6B pipeline through Lake, Porter, LaPorte and St. Joseph counties. The company invested about $300 million on a 60-mile length of new pipe that stretched between the Michigan/Indiana border and the Enbridge terminal in Griffith.

Enbridge replaced the 45-year-old Line 6B after a massive spill into the Kalamazoo River system in Michigan. The pipe carries 70 percent of the oil that's refined in the Midwest.

Pardon their dust

This was a big year for hospital renovations. Franciscan St. Margaret Health hospital in Dyer is undergoing a $10.2 million construction project to expand the capabilities of its emergency, laboratory and surgical departments.

Community Hospital in Munster is in the midst of a $33 million expansion that will add private rooms, double the capacity of the neonatal intensive care unit, expand the main surgical services area and provide advanced technology and accommodations to care for more stroke and heart patients.

Earlier in 2013, Methodist Hospitals opened a new emergency department at its Southlake campus. Construction of the 21,000-square-foot addition cost more than $8 million.

Popular Region restaurants close doors

Several popular restaurants, which often had been open for decades, closed their doors.

Casualties included Northwoods Hearty Home Cookin' and Saloon in St. John, Boz Hot Dogs and Rick’s Grill in Griffith, Popolano's in Lansing, and Michael’s Restaurant and The Blue Top Drive-In in Highland.

Owners often cited slow business, strained finances and road construction as reasons for hanging it up.

A new buyer swooped in and planned to revive the Blue Top, a drive-in that served region residents hamburgers and milkshakes for nearly eight decades. The original owners also decided to renovate the former Michael’s Restaurant on 45th Street and change the name to Skillets.

Trauma on front burner

Discussion of the need for a local trauma center continued in 2013. The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority accepted proposals from contractors who want to prepare feasibility studies gauging the need for a trauma center and academic medical center in Northwest Indiana.

The RDA move followed a legislative directive to study the feasibility of an academic medical center and trauma center within Lake and Porter counties.

Right now, there are neither. Local trauma patients often are transferred to hospitals in Chicago, Oak Lawn, Fort Wayne or Indianapolis for care.

A Level 1 trauma center offers the most extensive level of care and is staffed by highly trained medical staff.

Microbrewery explosion in the Region

Craft beer brewing took off in a big way in the Calumet Region. A dozen new breweries opened or announced plans to open.

Pokro Brewing Co., Wildrose Brewing Co. and New Oberfaltz Brewing all planned to start brewing in Griffith alone.

New brewers such as Twisted K-8 in Laporte, 18th Street Brewery in Gary, and Burn 'Em Brewing in Michigan City said they were slaking a growing thirst for locally sourced, high-quality beer. Statewide, year-over-year production shot up by 27 percent as more consumers gravitated toward craft beer.

Flossmoor Station Restaurant and Brewery decided to open a Hammond outpost, partly so it could start distributing throughout the Midwest. Devil's Trumpet eyed a U.S. 30 location in Hobart.

Hunter's Brewing set up shop in Chesterton, Transient Artisan Ales started producing small batches in Lansing while planning an eventual brewpub, and Ironwood Brewing Co. and Four Fathers Brewing both opened in Valparaiso.

U.S. Steel steelworkers lawsuit to be heard by Supreme Court

Steelworkers sued U.S. Steel for not getting paid when they were suiting up, taking off protective gear after a shift, or traveling to and from the locker room to the blast furnace floor.

Employees at Gary Works filed suit in 2007, and more than 800 steelworkers joined the litigation. The case wound its way through the federal court system until the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear it in November.

Lawyers said the case would largely come down to whether goggles, hoods and hardhats were considered clothes or protective gear. Employees normally get paid for changing time in most workplaces, but a 1938 federal law exempted changing time for union workers if it's conceded in a collective bargaining agreement.

Community health needs

Community Healthcare System, Methodist Hospitals and Franciscan Alliance collaborated on the Community Health Needs Assessment, or CHNA, to gauge the health needs of Northwest Indiana residents, as required by the Affordable Care Act and the IRS.

Hospitals use the report to identify key issues and then provide annual reports to the IRS to show their efforts. Cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer ranked among the top health concerns in the Region.

Doctor shortage in the forecast

A national doctor shortage on the horizon could change the health care landscape in Northwest Indiana and across the country. The Association of American Medical Colleges predicts the United States will be short more than 90,000 physicians by 2020 and more than 130,000 by 2025.

The problem lies in a perfect storm, as the Affordable Care Act means more people will be covered and visiting doctors, a bubble of doctors nears retirement age, people are living longer and medical residency slots for those pursuing medicine have not been increased in anticipation of the Affordable Care Act.

Local movie theater survival

Local independent movie theaters faced a choice of investing thousands of dollars in digital projectors, or going out of business.

Hollywood studios decided to stop distributing movies on 35 mm prints of new films, which forced local movie houses such as Valparaiso's 49'er Drive-In and the Art Theatre in Hobart to spend as much as $90,000 on new projectors.

Hammond's historic Kennedy Theatre - known for its vintage rocking chairs - tried to raise donations in order to stay open past the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Highland attempted to revive another longtime movie house, the Town Theatre. The town's redevelopment commission bought the 425-seat theater, cleaned it out and studied ways to revive it, such as by adding a stage for plays, concerts and gatherings.

Methodist CEO resigns

Ian McFadden, president and CEO of Methodist Hospitals, resigned in November. McFadden took over five years ago. He led the company from a $73 million deficit in 2008 to an operating surplus of $3.4 million at the end of 2009, with four consecutive years of increasing financial stability, according to the hospital.

Dr. Michael Davenport, vice president of medical affairs, has assumed the role of interim president and CEO of the hospital system. Methodist has campuses in Gary and Merrillville.

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