Town eyes smart growth for future
Chesterton has undergone a number of projects to help its downtown stay vibrant and pave the way for future growth.
Heather Ennis, executive director of the Chesterton/Duneland Chamber of Commerce, said top among those developments was creating a downtown dining district in 2010 that allowed for fine restaurants to obtain three-way liquor licenses.
"As a result, we have Octave Grill, which began in June of that year, and they have thrived. They're driving traffic downtown on weekend nights," Ennis said. "Then Villa Nova built in September 2011, and (it) is a wonderful Italian family restaurant with pizza and pastas. Two more are looking to utilize the district as well. We have seen great activity and interest in our downtown as a result, and this has lent itself to successful retail as well."
Chesterton's European Market continues to be a popular event downtown from May to October, offering 60 to 105 vendors who sell artisan food, produce and handmade items.
Chesterton's downtown also underwent an infrastructure overhaul last year, and Street Commissioner John Schnadenberg said it will keep the town in good stead for future years.
"The sewer line was installed back in the '20s, and the pipe was very brittle," he said. "With it being as deep as it was, you don't just dig down and fix a sewer problem. Once we knew we were going to open the road, the water company and gas company came and said their lines were installed in the '30s, so they wanted to replace their infrastructure. It just made sense to extend the project to facilitate putting in all of the new lines."
Workers also separated the sewer going into the sanitary line and opened the newly paved road on time, despite a union strike that may have cost town businesses their livelihood.
The town also built a $2.6 million, 22,000-square-foot municipal building, which includes cold storage, a salt building and the consolidation of all town departments under one roof except for the police and fire departments and the clerk-treasurer's office.
"We interact so much on a daily basis and now we have better communication and continuity of operations, so in an emergency we can get together," Town Manager Bernie Doyle said.
Hub of Lake County holds its own
Centered by the historical Old Lake County Courthouse, downtown Crown Point has held its own despite an economic downturn.
"They call the downtown the jewel of the city, or the jewel of the county," said Kent Jeffirs, board chairman of the Crossroads Chamber of Commerce.
"It's a very valuable asset for not only the city but the region."
In his role with the chamber — the result of a 2010 merger of the Crown Point and Merrillville chambers of commerce — Jeffirs has a unique perspective encompassing Crown Point's traditional downtown and Merrillville's more widespread shopping areas along U.S. 30 and Broadway.
Preserving the Crown Point downtown was a priority.
"When we got together with Merrillville, one issue we brought to the table was the downtown: the hometown flavor, the hometown events on the square," Jeffirs said. "It's a social center, an economic center, something people can identify with Crown Point.
"There's nothing more important to the people of Crown Point and the administration (of Mayor David Uran) than to recognize and preserve the downtown."
Grass-roots efforts over the years kept the more-than-century old courthouse from being demolished and kept a post office and commercial businesses downtown.
The site for a new library under construction on Main Street was selected after a survey showed people wanted the facility downtown, Library Director Lynn Frank said.
City officials worked with the Library Board to find the location, "so that foot traffic could stay in the square, and we could keep the square alive with people," Frank said.
The new library, expected to open late this year, is part of the downtown's rebirth, Jeffirs said.
But "even during the worst economic times, it was never a negative to have a business on the square," Jeffirs said. "Things may have flatlined, but they went flatline as opposed to negative."
Crown Point's downtown holds memories for generations of residents, and it will be no different for his own children, Jeffirs said.
Whether watching the Little League parade around the square, ordering a hot dog from a vendor or visiting Jeffirs' downtown office, "They're going to look back and say that was a fun place to be," Jeffirs said.
Renaissance under way in Griffith
While Griffith maintains its identity as "the town that came to the tracks" with its crisscross of rails, its downtown is experiencing a renaissance through the efforts and vision of its citizens, according to economic development officials.
The revitalization, begun in 2008, includes a facade program that literally is changing the face of downtown Griffith, said Jon Terpstra, chairman of the Griffith Redevelopment Commission and the Imagine Griffith effort.
The facade program has expanded geographically to include all of Broad Street, 45th Street from Highland east and Main Street from Colfax to Cline Avenue, he said.
Another expansion in this program helps businesses update infrastructure including HVAC systems and remodel interior spaces, Terpstra said.
Griffith also is expanding its economic development area and creating a new economic development zone, said George Jerome, a Griffith Town Council member and liaison to the Redevelopment Commission and Economic Development Commission.
The exact perimeters of that zone, which still are being determined, will be unveiled about mid-February, Jerome said.
"This is an effort to attract more businesses to Griffith," he said.
The new Franklin Center at 201 N. Broad St. provides a community meeting room and soon will boast a Community Development office in Room 205.
"This will be a resource for developers and builders who can come in to talk about their ideas," Terpstra said. "It will include the Center for Economic Development, the Redevelopment Commission and Imagine Griffith."
Among the resources available in this office will be all the drawings, boards and 3-D architectural models created by students from Ball State University's community-based projects program. The charrette study the students and faculty recently conducted has become the Imagine Griffith visioning project. The monthly meetings are designed to bring together town government officials, community members, businesses and organizations to discuss what's possible for downtown.
The "people-oriented places" Griffith's downtown revitalization envisions include a coffee shop with outdoor seating, a variety of restaurants, unique shops and a community theater, Terpstra said.
"We want to create a walkable community where people can come and enjoy the day without getting in their cars and driving everywhere," he said.
City witnessing a for rebirth
Through the front window of their corner insurance office at Hohman Avenue and Muenich Court, generations of the Gescheidler family have watched the changing face of downtown Hammond.
From performances by Vaudeville acts such as Laurel and Hardy decades ago, to a retail boom that jammed downtown sidewalks with shoppers, to the shuttering of businesses that fell victim to the era of malls, and, now, to the revitalization — they've seen it all.
John Gescheidler, CEO of Hammond National Insurance Co., said the business has been there longer than any other downtown.
Founded in 1882 by his grandfather, it started as a bank. When the Great Depression hit, not a customer lost a penny, but the bank was forced to close. The insurance portion of the bank's services was salvaged. And since 1942, the business has been serving the community from that location.
Growing up in the 1960s, Gescheidler said downtown Hammond was the place to be.
"When I was a kid, it was bustling," he said. "Literally, a retail mecca."
People were drawn to department stores, wedding boutiques, jewelry stores and movie theaters.
In the mid-1970s that rapid pace began to slow. Shopping malls were blamed for the downtown's demise, especially River Oaks in nearby Calumet City.
"That pretty much sealed it," Gescheidler said.
Decades later, downtown is picking up, but with a different identity. Gescheidler said he doubts downtown Hammond will return to the retail glory days, but with professional offices, banks and a hospital, it is drawing workers who can support more restaurants, shops and the arts.
"I'm really glad to see a lot of what's happening now," Gescheidler said. "The buildings are getting fixed up, and it's starting to really come back. It's got a pulse now."
A Curves fitness center relocated to downtown, and a new nightclub, AquaVor, opened last month.
Phil Taillon, Hammond's executive director of planning and development, said business owners are seeing the historical downtown as an opportunity.
A design studio and print shop merged and remodeled a downtown building. And the city is in talks with two Illinois companies considering relocating to downtown Hammond. That will spur more business, he said.
"The key to a good downtown are small businesses that you can't drive to any mall to get to, and arts," Taillon said. "If you build around that, businesses will come."
Downtown Hammond is home to the Towle Theater, a playhouse. Restaurants and retail would complement that, he said.
Hammond has a redevelopment plan that identifies ways to develop downtown, such as additional parking, retail and relocating City Hall. Taillon said the city wants to follow the plan, but in the tough economy, officials will work with interested developers, even if their project isn't in line with the plan.
Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. wants to move City Hall downtown but decided this year to put the project on hold until finances improve. Other successful downtowns have a city hall as their center.
"It is essential to the continued revival that has begun in downtown," he said.
Stirring the pot to attract businesses
The town's downtown has gone from stagnant, to stirring, to new life in the past couple of years.
The renaissance started with the reconstruction of Main Street through the town by the Indiana Department of Transportation. A three-year project that involved widening the road, adding curbs, gutters, sidewalks, decorative lighting and drainage improvements, it was decades in the making.
Construction was tough on businesses, but, when it ended in fall 2009, the town celebrated with a block party that has become a symbol of its revival.
"We started the block party to get people to come downtown and enjoy the day and realize there are some things here," Town Council President Don Ensign said.
The early returns show five new businesses have opened in Hebron in the past two years, ranging from a hot dog stand to a fitness center. Besides the block party, now an annual event, the town has added Santa's Workshop to the Christmas activities designed to attract people, and the July Fourth festivities now extend over two weekends.
With a donation from Porter hospital, the town now has a clock tower downtown, and the Hebron Redevelopment Commission has added decorative benches along the reconstructed Main Street, holiday decorations for the light poles and soon will erect signs to help visitors find their way to the library, parks, the Little League field, the post office and the industrial parks.
Ensign said the commission hopes the signs will help new businesses find their way to the industrial park or elsewhere in town. The commission is taking an inventory of available land and building space to post on the Internet for anyone looking for the right location, location, location.
"We'd like the owners of all those vacant businesses and properties to be open to new businesses and to work with them to get a new start," he said. "There are people looking at Hebron and hoping to find property to start a business, and it's difficult to find something affordable. We hope that changes."
The town, which can offer incentives to new businesses to help them get started, is looking at doing the engineering to extend a sewer line to undeveloped property at the town's north end if someone indicates a readiness to develop that.
"We've worked to be prepared for when the recession is over," Ensign said. "We are staged to accept new homes and new businesses, and we highly want it. We need to have things available in the community. Even if things might cost a little more, it would be a wash with the high gas prices."
The mix works in this town
Retaining existing businesses and attracting new enterprises to downtown Highland take a coordinated effort and fresh ideas, according to those involved with the town's economic development efforts.
"Our longtime businesses are doing quite well even in this down economy," said Mary Luptak, executive director of the Highland Chamber of Commerce. "That's really encouraging news."
The mix of businesses downtown — including specialty retailers, a bank, a pharmacy, a popular restaurant/lounge and a heating contractor — creates a unique blend that attracts customers with different needs, Luptak said.
Helping current business owners devise new facades for their buildings is part of a new grant program introduced last year, said Cecile Petro, director of redevelopment.
"We teamed with students from Purdue University Calumet's experiential learning program and have had two interns provide renderings of building exteriors. This helps the business owner visualize what can be done," Petro said.
If the owners follow the facade program's guidelines, the town will pay for 30 percent of the approved changes, she said. The program is available to businesses from Fifth Street to Highway Avenue and Ridge Road and some parts of Kennedy Avenue.
The Highland Main Street Bureau sponsors another program aimed at filling existing commercial properties in town. The Pop-Up Gallery is a new concept to introduce art into the community, showcase available properties and create a networking experience for business people, Petro said.
Local artists' work is displayed gallery-style at various locations throughout the commercial district.
"One of the main goals of this program is to get properties leased or purchased. People don't know what that particular spot can offer. They only see it from the outside," Petro said. "It's also a chance to display art in the downtown."
The Main Street organization has organized an Art and Music Committee that "encourages people to get involved to with the arts and to tie in with the business community," she said.
That same idea is germinating for a sports tie-in, she said.
"If anyone is interested in being on a sports committee, we'd like to hear from them. The idea is to work with businesses downtown to put something to do with sports in the window."
These efforts create interest in downtown Highland, Petro said.
"If there are more people coming downtown, that will attract more businesses, especially retail," she said.
Luptak said another great advantage Highland has over other communities is parking.
"We have the on-street parking and downtown parking lots," she said.
Lake George is the center of the city
When it comes to describing Hobart's downtown, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mike Adams would prefer using another phrase.
"I wouldn't use downtown. I'd call it the lakefront district — that's the center of gravity for Hobart," Adams said.
Hobart for the past few years has been reinventing its downtown. Adams likens it to what's already taken place in bigger cities such as Washington, D.C., — where younger families are returning to live and enjoy life.
"We're a microcosm of that," Adams said.
He envisions Hobart, because of its quaint downtown look, as the future home of young professionals who work in Chicago but live in Northwest Indiana.
The families, who will live in two- or three-story condos, would be able to walk to downtown cafes or bistros.
To draw people to the downtown, city officials in recent years have held a number of special events on the lakefront including a summer market and motorized miniature boat races.
"This, the lake, is what makes us special, and we need to build on that," Adams said.
In addition, the City Council last year approved a Riverfront designation to draw and keep businesses in the downtown.
Under the the Riverfront designation, qualifying restaurants and other businesses can apply for a three-way liquor license for $1,000.
So far, three downtown restaurants and their owners remain on board for the plans. Dimitrios Karataglidis, owner of Cafe 339 — recently named the chamber's outstanding new business of the year — is one of them.
"Another restaurant will be opening soon on Main Street because of the Riverfront designation, and indications are that it will be Italian," Adams said.
He said Hobart has admired what Valparaiso had done in its downtown.
"That type of ambiance is something we're striving for but with our lake as the focus, since we're not the county seat. We appreciate what Valparaiso has, but we'll be different," Adams said.
Dixie Highway can replace losses
Many communities would view the loss of a longtime bakery and family restaurant in their downtown business districts as a deficit they can't overcome.
But not Homewood, which has its downtown business district along Dixie Highway at Ridge Road and has managed to come up with replacements for the decades-old Nielsen's Bakery and Three Brothers Restaurant, the latter of which claimed among its distinctions the fact that President George H.W. Bush and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger once ate there.
During the past year, the Nielsen's Bakery at 2043 Ridge Road became the Twisted Q barbecue and bakery, while the Three Brothers is now Global Fusion Inc., 1961 Ridge Road, which sells artifacts from around the world.
Those aren't the only two losses-turned-successes in the Homewood. The former Bilaggio's Italian restaurant, 2033 Ridge Road, is now the Toyko Japanese Steak House and Sushi Bar.
Paula Wallrich, Homewood's community development director, said the place has become an attraction.
"People are enjoying the food and they like the atmosphere of watching their food being prepared," she said. "It has become a popular place for families to go."
Homewood is not standing pat. It is continuing to draw new businesses, such as the Good Life Cafe, a delicatessen and health food store expected to open in coming months at 2057 Ridge Road.
"It brings an alternative to our community," Wallrich said.
While Homewood also has a thriving business strip along Halsted Street that includes big-box stores such as Best Buy, Home Depot, Target and a Jewel supermarket, Wallrich said the Dixie Highway business strip is "a traditional downtown that really is the heart of our community."
Which is why the area around Dixie Highway and Ridge Road often serves as a location for village festivals, including the upcoming Chocolate Fest on Feb. 18. The event allows chocolate manufacturers to show off their new products and local residents to taste unusual concoctions.
Tax breaks to bolster Ridge Road
Much of municipal government's attention during the past year was focused on getting local and state officials to extend the life of the tax increment finance district that exists along the downtown business strip on Ridge Road.
Village President Norm Abbott said having a TIF district in place for another 12 years will enable Lansing to put together incentives that could draw businesses to locate along Ridge Road between Burnham Avenue and State Line Road.
The TIF district, in place for more than two decades, was scheduled to expire at the end of last year. But officials of local school districts and the Lan-Oak Park District gave minimal opposition to the idea of extending the TIF district, and the Illinois General Assembly and Gov. Pat Quinn eventually gave their support to a measure that keeps a Ridge Road TIF in place through 2023.
Officials also are taking steps to improve the parking along Ridge Road, taking whatever measures they can to acquire vacant buildings that can be torn down and turned into parking lots.
Lansing officials literally are working to get Cook County to turn over ownership of a long-vacant building at 3251 Ridge Road — a one-time doctor's office — where property taxes are several years' delinquent.
The county's "No Cash Bid" program eventually will give Lansing ownership of the building sometime this spring if its owners do not pay their tax bill.
Among new businesses to locate along Ridge Road in coming months will be one longtime business. DeYoung Furniture was located for nearly 70 years at 3329 Ridge Road until moving to St. John in 2005. Company officials still own the Lansing property, and want to reopen it as a furniture store to complement their Indiana location.
Village officials last year recommended a tax break for DeYoung, which store officials said would make a Lansing location economically feasible for them.
Making downtown a destination
A single block wraps around Ind. 2 to form this south Lake County community's historic downtown.
Filled with buildings of architectural interest, sidewalks lined with period lighting and brick accents, and anchored by parks to the east and west, the downtown district hosts numerous events sponsored by the town and local organizations.
Tucked into a charming 1916 building at its center, Sickinger's Jewelry, 314 E. Commercial Ave., has drawn visitors with its attractive window displays and commitment to quality jewelry since 1928.
"We've always been very blessed to do well in the downtown," Kathy Sickinger said.
She is co-owner of the business and building with her husband Jim Sickinger, a descendant of founder/watchmaker Henry Sickinger. Their son Jason Sickinger makes the fourth generation in the family business.
Lowell Chamber of Commerce President Carrie Austgen, who has lived in the area all her life, has watched downtown businesses rise and fall. "It's in a low now with so many empty buildings," she said.
She remembers when the town was known as an antiquers' mecca two decades ago.
More recently, The Davis Store, a women's fine apparel business that drew its clientele from Indiana and Illinois and was a Lowell downtown mainstay, closed. The year's end saw the shuttering of The Cornerstone Mansion, a fine dining establishment. About 10 storefronts are empty now.
Small downtowns need some unique quality with boutiques and specialty shops to create a destination, Austgen said.
"Many of our buildings have character and history, but not all businesses are looking for that," she said.
Strong marketing efforts by the Lowell Downtown Merchants Association brought busloads of tourists to the downtown briefly, but it couldn't be sustained.
"Historic destinations need the shopping and dining, and we seem to be losing them one by one," Kathy Sickinger said.
She attributes their jewelry business' success, in part, to an adjusted marketing strategy that includes social media and billboards.
"Still, it's amazing the number of people living in town who don't know we're here," she said. "We've been through this before. We're in changing economic times now, and change is always painful. ... Downtowns need to reinvent themselves."
Mayor: Consensus key to revitalization
Michigan City has come a long way in its effort to revitalize the downtown in a short time.
The biggest challenge was getting a group of investors and residents to share a vision and work together to make it happen, said City Councilman Richard Murphy.
"I believe we have that now," Murphy said.
Murphy said noticeable changes in reviving the downtown have occurred just within the past two years.
Mayor Ron Meer said the once-thriving downtown laid dormant for so long because nobody could come together and decide on one strategy.
There also were people who couldn't accept that the ''big box stores'' and grocery chains that began migrating to the city's south side in the early 1970s were not coming back.
"Everybody knew something needed to be done, but they couldn't come to a consensus. Sooner or later you have to move forward," Meer said.
Fueling the revitalization is the arts, but there are specialty stores and shops to help drive the recovery in a downtown with appeal due to its historic flavor and close proximity to Lake Michigan, Blue Chip Casino and other attractions.
Another asset for the downtown is the nearby South Shore Railroad for people who want to commute from Chicago.
To keep the rebirth going, Murphy said the long vacant Warren Building, a former hotel in the 700 block of Franklin St., is a major key.
He said state tax credits are being pursued for a proposed artist colony to go into the seven-story building in the 700 block of Franklin Street.
A $10 million investment is on the table from Artspace, a Minneapolis-based group, which plans to have 40 units for artists to live and work in the structure.
Murphy said that would snowball into even more investment in the downtown as well as additional foot traffic.
He said the economy is the biggest challenge for an even healthier downtown, but the low real estate prices can fuel the momentum during these difficult times.
"We have money to invest in our downtown and again we have a committed vision from these investors, these people who are all on the same page. There's a lot of excitement for us," Murphy said.
City continues to build from scratch
The city of Portage is a child of the 1960s.
Incorporated as a town in 1958 and as a city in 1968, there was no traditional downtown. Most residents and officials consider Portage's downtown the area along Central Avenue between Hamstrom and Willowcreek roads.
For more than a dozen years city officials, through three administrations, have attempted to create a downtown. The city's redevelopment commission bought property that was once the east side of the Portage Mall and demolished the buildings. They've paved streets around the water tower and dubbed the area Founders Square Park.
The idea has been to redevelop the area into a traditional downtown, with stores that cater to local residents, mixed with housing.
Developing the area slowed when the economy took a downturn with little, if any, private interest in development.
The city again took the lead this past year with construction of the University Center, a two-story, 32,000-square-foot building that will house WorkOne offices along with classrooms to be shared by Ivy Tech Community College, Purdue University North Central, Indiana University Northwest and Valparaiso University. The building is slated to be complete this spring with classes being offered beginning the fall semester.
Officials hope the construction of University Center will spur further development in the city's downtown.
The right medicine for a healthy downtown
The importance of having a healthy and vibrant downtown has not been lost on Mayor Jon Costas and his administration.
"From the beginning we knew the downtown was the heart of the city, and it had to beat strongly for the whole city to be healthy," he said. "We knew the remaking of the downtown was important, and there was no silver bullet. We had to look at what its future would be and develop a plan that, over time, would accomplish that."
The effort started with the streetscape project into new sidewalks, curbs, gutters, decorative light poles and signal arms, lighted street signs, tree grates, sound system, planters, benches, and other amenities along Lincolnway and adjoining downtown streets.
The city next convinced the Indiana Legislature to create 10 special historic district liquor licenses for downtown restaurants to create a dining mecca that attracts people to the downtown. So far, eight of the full-service licenses have been awarded, most of them to new restaurants.
Through the city's Redevelopment Commission, a facade grant program was set up to assist downtown businesses improve the appearance of their buildings. Working with the Valparaiso Community Festivals and Events office, the city increased the budget for downtown events to lure still more people to visit and see what the city has to offer.
The latest and perhaps most ambitious project was the Central Park Plaza project, creating a downtown park where a vacant building and a parking lot used to exist. The park, with its amphitheater and splash pad, created a gathering place and a venue for still more events.
"While much has happened, there's still much to do," Costas said.
Future proposals include creating an arts and entertainment venue to supplement the park, increasing the funding for downtown events, encouraging the Heritage Foundation's efforts to develop a children's museum at the old police station, working with the county to renovate the Memorial Opera House and creating a community music school.
"We'd like to see a downtown hotel in the next couple of years," he said. "I think that's possible, and it will add a lot of life to the downtown. We want to further develop the farmers market and events like the night bike ride. Our sidewalk program needs to be expanded, and we need to find ways of connecting the downtown with the students at Valparaiso University."
More than just a business district
Bulldog Brewing Co., downtown Whiting's newest restaurant, is busy at lunchtime and after work, too, as executives wearing neckties and flannel-clad tradesmen tuck into piles of food washed down with pints of the pub's signature beers.
For more than a century, the mile-long stretch of 119th Street — steps from Lake Michigan — has been more than just a business district, serving also as the social, entertainment and recreational hub for Whiting's 5,000 residents and thousands of workers in nearby industries.
Space is currently at a premium downtown, with new medical and law offices adding to a mix that includes diverse retail choices, art galleries, a movie house showing first-run films, a Community Center with bowling alleys and a swimming pool, a European delicatessen and eight restaurants — with three more scheduled to open this year.
"'Renaissance' isn't exactly the right term for what's going on now," said Dee Young, whose family has owned the nationally known Chrislove Collectibles shop downtown since 1978. "Downtown Whiting has always had a lot going on."
The current gloss on the area is no accident of market forces, said Sara Hildebranski, executive director of the Whiting-Robertsdale Chamber of Commerce.
"(Mayor Joe Stahura) and his team are really picky about what businesses they encourage to move in," she said.
Bulldog Brewing Co. is a good example of how the city works with entrepreneurs to maintain the walkability and historic look of the area, but with modern facilities, said Bob Kark, Whiting's economic development director.
Kark said the owners approached the Redevelopment Commission, which owned the building, with a proposal for the restaurant and convinced the Historic Preservation Commission — 119th Street is a designated Historic District — that their plans were appropriate for the location.
Four downtown properties were sold to new businesses last year as part of a redevelopment strategy to buy, refurbish and resell the parcels, supplemented by incentive and destination grants, along with matching funds for facade improvements, Kark said.
"Downtown has so much to offer, and all within walking distance," said Chamber President Carol Jacobson, who operated several downtown shops over 30 years. "New businesses come to us, asking to join the chamber."
Whiting, which already receives international attention each year for its Pierogi Fest in July, this April will host the three-day state historic preservation conference at the downtown Community Center built in 1923 by the Standard Oil Co.
Times staff writers Sue Erler, Vanessa Renderman, Deborah Laverty, Joyce Russell and Phil Wieland, and correspondents Lu Ann Franklin, Melanie Csepiga, Stan Maddux, Heather Augustyn, Steve Zabroski and Gregory Tejeda contributed to this report.