GARY | A grass-roots effort is under way to transform downtown Miller into an arts and recreation hub fed by public transportation and bounded at the lakefront by a hotel and upscale restaurant.
The concept was the idea local arts enthusiasts who began the process this year with the opening of the Marshall J. Gardner Center for the Arts in Miller.
Members of the Miller Beach Arts and Creative District opened the center in a circa-1959 building that in past years housed the Miller Drug store.
The building's color-tiled exterior, terrazzo floors and wide-open 6,000-square-foot interior already have played host to several art exhibits with more planned throughout the year.
Eric Reaves, president and founder of the Arts and Creative District, said plans to transform downtown Miller grew from his own love of art and photography.
"Being a Type A personality and wanting to be in control, I wanted to have my own gallery," Reaves, 50, said.
He said his research shows art districts are a model for revitalization of distressed areas.
The fit seemed perfect for Miller, a Gary community on the Lake Michigan shore and once the summer home of writers Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir and other artists.
Sharing Reaves' vision are Patrick and Karren Lee, a couple whose love for the Miller area dates to their days as high school sweethearts in nearby Lake Station.
"We'd drive to Miller and say 'someday we're going to live in Miller and be part of this,'" said Patrick Lee, president of the construction development firm Lee Companies and a member of the Arts and Creative District.
The Arts and Creative District plans to model its project on the transportation-oriented development concept: compact, walkable communities typically centered on a train station or transit system.
A visual presentation of the group's plan — now in the conceptual stage — depicts a modernized South Shore Line train stop near Lake Street connected to parking and retail towers. It all serves as the portal to venues for visual and performing arts, an open-air market and several hundred units of new housing.
At its center is the Marshall J. Gardner building with its gallery, art studios and a gift shop.
The plans call for a resort hotel with up to 200 rooms, a 150-seat restaurant, a 5,000-square-foot museum and access to hiking and biking in the neighboring Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. The recently restored Marquette Park Pavilion is nearby.
To achieve the goal, the Arts and Creative District expects to partner with the city of Gary, the National Parks Service and the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, among other agencies.
Funding of up to $50 million will be sought from the 2013 Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grant program, Reaves said.
A program of the U.S. Department of Transportation, TIGER funds projects that promise a significant impact on the nation, a region or a metropolitan area.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said her administration is willing to work with the Arts and Creative District to apply for the TIGER grant.
"We're very excited about the initiative taken by the Miller group and their efforts to stir economic development," Freeman-Wilson said.
The mayor has advocated for Miller Beach to become "the Hamptons of the Midwest," an alternative destination for vacationers from the Chicago area who normally travel to Michigan.
"It's a lot easier and more convenient to come to Gary," Freeman-Wilson said.
A possible scenario would declare the project site a tax increment financing district, in which tax revenue generated by development could be used as a funding source.
That's something Freeman-Wilson said her administration would consider, with reservations.
"I am really concerned about the number of TIF districts we have," she said. "My primary job is to strategically develop so we can increase our assessed value, and if we continue to create TIF districts there's a danger we could slow that."
Costa Dillon, superintendent of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, said the concept of an arts district ties into the mission of the National Lakeshore.
"The legislation for this park says that we are to be the inspiration of people dealing with the arts," Dillon said. "Certainly anything having to do with the arts, with the wonders of the dunes, is something fully compatible with the Dunes National Lakeshore."
Leigh Morris, chairman of the board of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, said the project is exciting.
"It's exactly what you'd like to see, a grass-roots effort that's not being inhibited by what is or what used to be," Morris said.
The RDA's possible role in the project is unknown at this point, Morris said.
"The RDA is not the end-all for funding, but we can be a catalyst and a channel to help put together a funding package that might be attractive to federal agencies," Morris said.