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GARY — The south shore of Lake Michigan is well-known for the dramatic contrast between its pristine shoreline and man-made industry, and as home to a multitude of plant life that makes it an ecological meeting point of similar drama.

Added to that is the rich diversity of the Calumet Region’s residents, the result of waves of migration that built a population totaling about 1.5 million, spread between two states and among 71 municipalities.

These apparently disparate elements combine to equal more than the sum of the parts, in the view of a group that’s spent years putting together a proposal to create a Calumet National Heritage Area.

The Calumet Region has a common history, culture and economy, and a heritage area “is a way to shine a particular light on a cohesive national story,” said Mark Bouman, president of the Calumet Heritage Partnership and director of the Chicago Region Program at The Field Museum, at the partnership’s annual meeting Saturday at Lake Etta County Park.

Bouman discussed a feasibility study for a heritage area that would stretch from Chicago’s South Side and the southern suburbs through Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties.

Heritage areas are designated by Congress and receive financial assistance from the National Park Service, but are locally managed. The feasibility study will be made public in November for a 30-day public comment period.

A local heritage area could help coordinate historical preservation and environmental conservation efforts, supporters say, while encouraging recreational, educational and tourist activities. Sets of local and regional trails, points of interest and “panorama points” that provide views of the Region’s landscape would be linked through a branding campaign and by way-finding markers.

“Now is the moment to do so,” Bouman said of creation of a Calumet heritage area. “The (heritage area) tool matches the landscape pretty well.”

Colorado native Michael Longan, the Indiana vice president of the CHP board, said he’s fallen in love with the Calumet Region during his time as a geography professor at Valparaiso University.

“There’s a lot of heritage here at risk of being lost. I think it’s important to protect that,” Longan said.

Sherry Meyer, the Illinois vice president of the CHP board, talked about “this amazing bi-state connection.”

“There’s industry and heritage and culture — all these connections that tell the story of America,” Meyer said.

Major portions of the 11-part feasibility study include explaining the reasoning behind the heritage area’s boundaries, and creating an inventory of all its aspects that illustrate its themes.

Nature, industry and culture

The study’s natural and cultural resource inventory includes 440 items, linked to the heritage area’s proposed themes: “Nature Reworked: Calumet’s Diverse Landscape;” “Innovation and Change for Industries and Workers;” “Crucible of Working Class and Ethnic Cultures.”

The inventory includes sites designated by federal, state and local governments as historically important, including the Pullman National Monument and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and sites gleaned from community conversations and experts’ opinions. It also includes events and cultural institutions that help define the Calumet area.

Bouman said the document provides a collection of information that hasn’t existed until now. “I think the resource inventory itself is a huge value-add that hasn’t been available in the Region before,” he said.

The geographic extent of the proposed area is larger than originally studied, stretching south and east to include the three Northwest Indiana counties. Initial discussion had focused more closely on the geography defined by the Calumet rivers and the lakeshore.

Bouman cited practical reasons for the expansion. “The three counties in Northwest Indiana all fall into one planning jurisdiction,” he noted. “There are many functional connections between the outer parts of the counties and the inner parts.”

The partnership looked at a variety of natural and man-made features while determining the boundary.

The two watersheds; the ancient shorelines, including the Glenwood and Toleston; transportation routes, from the Native American Sauk and Vincennes trails to modern roads and railways; the “made land” along the shore and river system; Superfund sites and toxic release inventory sites — all of those were mapped in an effort to define the area’s geographic unity.

Social conventions were mapped too: “Where do people call the Calumet region the Calumet region?” was one question, using evidence such as businesses with “Calumet” in their names to help answer it.

What’s next

The feasibility study must address administrative issues as well. The Calumet Heritage Partnership intends to be “the public” face of the heritage area, while a nonprofit organization called the Calumet Bi-State Sustainable Development Collaborative would provide “back office” administrative tasks.

In its early years, the heritage area would need about $350,000; after that funding needs would depend on the activities of the area, with a typical range between $300,000 and $2 million. Some money would be available as a match from the National Park Service; the rest would need to come from donations and grants.

“Now is an important pivot moment,” Bouman said. “We need to spread the word.”

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Transportation reporter

Andrew covers transportation, real estate, casinos and other topics for The Times business section. A Crown Point native, he joined The Times in 2014, and has more than 15 years experience as a reporter and editor at Region newspapers.