* GARY — With the Radisson Hotel and Star Plaza Theatre in Merrillville closing in about 80 days, Lake County stands at a fork in the road with two possible destinations — rejuvenation or decline.
Speros Batistatos, president and CEO of the South Shore Convention & Visitors Authority, drove home that message at Monday’s Gary Chamber of Commerce meeting at the Gary SouthShore RailCats administration building.
This “decline of destination means that more than 11,000 rooms have been canceled for 2017 through 2020, and more than 90 groups have had to find new locations,” Batistatos said.
Groups once scheduled here are leaving the Region to go to convention centers on both sides of the state line including Tinley Park, Fort Wayne, South Bend and Indianapolis, that are funded by a combination of food and beverage taxes and municipal bonds, Batistatos said.
In addition, 200 people are losing their jobs, “and we can’t absorb them (into the hospitality industry),” he said. “It’s as big as a steel mill closing.”
Merrillville property holders also will “get a little jolt,” because the $1,000 a year residents save in taxes because of visitor spending no longer will be there with the Radisson closing, Batistatos said.
He also predicted more restaurants and other hospitality-related businesses will close their doors.
“Lake County has never had a convention center. The Genesis Convention Center is an arena. It never has been; it never will be a convention center. There’s no convention space in that building,”Batistatos said.
A large, multi-use convention center remains the answer to creating jobs, bringing in visitors who will spend an average of $250 to $325 a day and spur additional development, he said.
“SSCVA’s job is to fill the convention center with conventions, sporting events and other large groups,” Batistatos said. “Filling a convention center will, in turn, fill rooms, restaurants, shops and attractions.”
The proposed 3 percent food and beverage tax “will generate funding for the multi-use facility,” he said. “In similar markets, 50 percent of the food and beverage tax collected is from visitors.”
Projected to generate $21 million a year, that tax would become $210 million with the issuance of municipal bonds, he said.
This week a request for proposals to conduct a feasibility study on a convention center will be discussed, Batistatos said.
*This story has been changed.