SCHERERVILLE — The Radisson at Star Plaza hotel faces the wrecking ball in just a few weeks, and South Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau President and Chief Executive Officer Speros Batistatos said tourism will decline in Northwest Indiana when it no longer has the Radisson's 30,000 square feet of conference space.
"We're looking at either rejuvenation or decline," Batistatos said Friday at a meeting of the Lake County Economic Alliance at Teibel's Restaurant. "On Jan. 1, 2017, we have nothing to compete with. We're at a fork in the road. Do we want to increase demand so people want to come here?"
Batistatos renewed his call for a new convention center somewhere in Lake County, saying it wouldn't have to be located near U.S. 30 and Interstate 65 and it would benefit the entire Region by bringing in tourists. He said the local tourism industry supports more than 15,000 jobs in Lake County, and that visitors spend $76.8 million per year on lodging, $129.3 million on food and drink and $272.2 million on entertainment here.
A new convention center, funded by a 3 percent food and beverage tax, could draw more visitors to conventions, car shows, boat shows and other events, Batistatos said. The new tax could pay for a $70 million to $80 million convention center that would compete with facilities in South Bend, Fort Wayne, Schaumburg, French Lick and Tinley Park, and $130 million to $140 million in other projects around the county.
Batistatos said Northwest Indiana could potentially have a 125,000-square-foot facility and would be a third-tier convention market like Toledo, Ohio, that wasn't trying to compete with premier destinations like Orlando, Chicago or Las Vegas. But he said any convention visitors were "pure profit" since they spend money in the Region without needing their roads fixed or children educated in local schools.
Lake County should try and copy off the successful playbook of Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, which both lured visitors by investing in convention facilities, Batistatos said.
"We can make an investment to create more jobs, and not manage a steady decline," he said. "Urban blight will spread into other places. Young people won't want to live here. Housing stock will not be resold."
An opportunity to renovate the largely abandoned Century Mall in Merrillville into a convention center may have been missed, Batistatos said. Building a new facility somewhere would take two to three years, he estimated.
Retired Lake County Public Library Director Ana Grandfield said there was currently no place to have meetings locally, such as when the Indiana Library Federation gathered.
"I think it's desperately needed," she said.
Whiting Mayor Joe Stahura said Batistatos has a vision, but said such a project would have to make sense for everyone.
"We've got to vet it well, and see how it all shakes out," he said.