“This is not the downtown of the 1940’s, 50’s or 60’s. Nor is it the downtown of the 1970’s and 80’s. This is a new downtown Hammond!” exclaims Karen Maravilla, president of the Downtown Hammond Council, whose enthusiasm for the city’s downtown is infectious.
Established in 1954, the Downtown Hammond Council (DHC) is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization composed of volunteers who seek to revitalize, beautify, and promote the downtown district, she says.
All are involved in businesses, organizations, educational institutions and municipal services and exude an enthusiasm for promoting and improving downtown Hammond.
The DHC executive board includes Maravilla who owns It’s Just Serendipity at 5630 Hohman Ave. and provides public relations and marketing for El Taco Real Restaurant.
Vice president is Craig Chism, advertising sales manager Northlake and Illinois at The Times Media Co.
Mary McClelland, gallery manager of South Shore Arts based in Munster is board secretary; and Michelle Novak, banking center manager of Citizens Financial Bank at 5311 Hohman Ave., in treasurer.
The DHC was originally a merchant organization because many of the businesses were retail establishments during that bustling period of the city’s history, Maravilla says.
“My parents brought me to downtown Hammond to shop,” she recalls. “It drew people from all over the area.”
With the growth of shopping malls in the 1970s, many retail stores and other businesses left the urban center, creating a very different downtown, Maravilla says. That image is changing thanks to the combined effort of DHC and others interested in economic development.
The Downtown Hammond Council is working to help create a new identity for the area that includes Hohman Avenue and such intersecting thoroughfares as Sibley, Fayette, Russell and Highland streets.
“We have reinvented ourselves. Today downtown Hammond has diverse and ecletic businesses, that bring people to the downtown,” Maravilla says.
For example, Maravilla’s It’s Just Serendipity has been named the Best Antique Shop in The Times Media Co’s Best of the Region contest. Service Honda has been rated in the top five in the nation for motorcycle parts. Franciscan St. Margaret Hospital not only provides healthcare services, it also has a gift shop. Stage productions are among the events held at The Towle Theater, and Strack & Van Til’s offers a dazzling array of fresh and prepared foods, bakery goods and much more.
As part of its mission, the DHC continues to focus on attracting even more businesses to the downtown, and works with the city’s economic development staff to accomplish this.
Her own experiences as a small business owner in downtown Hammond have been valuable during recruiting efforts, Maravilla says.
“This all reinforces the message the city is sending” through its own economic development programs, she adds.
The Buy Local program initiated by The Times Media Co. is another effort the DHC supports, Maravilla says. Businesses throughout the Calumet Region, including those in Hammond, offer special deals and discounts to consumers as part of the Buy Local program.
A number of other DHC initiatives help create an attractive environment for those consumers to shop and patronize and make downtown Hammond a destination. The Curb Appeal program encourages businesses to enhance the facades of their establishments to create a welcoming atmosphere for customers.
The Historic Downtown designation is another drawing card for promoting the urban center, Maravilla said.
Signs with that designation make visitors aware that Hammond has a rich heritage and works to preserve that history.
“We have put a sign north of Harrison Park. One side reads ‘Welcome to Historic Downtown Hammond’ and the other side says ‘Thank You for Visiting Historic Downtown Hammond’,” Maravilla says. “The downtown is an important part of Hammond’s history.”
Family-friendly events such as the recent 4th Annual Downtown Hammond Council/DHC “Eat, Shop & Rock: Browse to the Beat Sidewalk Sale & Fest” also create a buzz and bring people into the downtown, she says.
This celebration of the 1960’s, 1970’s and The Beatles on June 22 drew record participation and crowds to an area along Hohman Avenue between Carroll, Williams and Doty streets, Maravilla says.
“We had more than 50 vendors, which is a record for us,” she says, adding that the festival’s focus was to encourage fest-goers to shop and support local businesses.
In addition to live entertainment and sidewalk sales, the fest also featured such competitions as a Singing Contest, a Beatles’ Look-a-Like Contest, a Trivia Contest and a Coloring Contest. Kirk Muspratt, conductors of the Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra and John Cain, executive director of South Shore Arts served as celebrity judges for these competitions.
The DHC Curb Appeal & Best Biz on the Block contest created some healthy competition during the festival and was judged by representatives of the Home Depot, Purdue University Calumet, Calumet College of St. Joseph and the City of Hammond.
Vintage cars, a “long, long, long” stilt walker and a magic show added to the fun.
Upcoming downtown festivities sponsored by the DHC include two popular events – the 8th Annual Bizarre Bazaar on Sept. 21 and the 6th Annual Holiday Kick-Off Celebration: A Tribute to ‘A Christmas Story’ on Nov. 23.
Join the DHC from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 21 at Harrison Park, Hohman Avenue and Waltham Street, for a light-hearted, whimsical day of family fun at the 8th Annual Bizarre Bazaar.
Among the festival’s highlights will be arts and crafts activities, a garage sale, a car and motorcycle show, a 5K run/walk, a chess tournament, a pie baking contest, kids’ games, wacky hat competition, a bean bag tourney and pony rides.
Festival-goers can dance, stomp their feet and clap their hands to the live entertainment. Dozens of arts and crafts vendors will showcase and sell a wide variety of unique items that are perfect to give as gifts for others or enjoyed by the buyers themselves. Food vendors will also offer a tempting array of goodies including traditional festival fare and ethnic cuisine.
Bizarre Bazaar has become part of the fabric of downtown Hammond and draws visitors to Harrison Park, one of the city’s jewels, Maravilla says.
To kick off the 2013 holiday season, the 6th annual Tribute to ‘A Christmas Story’ promises to get fest-goers in the spirit of the season, made even more special this year because it’s the 30th anniversary of the iconic holiday movie’s release. “A Christmas Story” is based on Hammond native Jean Shepherd’s short stories about Hammond and its downtown.
This popular event takes place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 23 along Hohman Avenue, Sibley and Fayette streets in downtown Hammond. The DHC collaborates with the City of Hammond and the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority on this festival.
View the movie “A Christmas Story” at The Towle Theater. Visit Santa Claus and his Elves. Participate in the Parker Family and movie characters’ Look-A-Like Contest, Cabela’s “Shoot Your Eye Out Contest” and the Tire Changing competition and the Adopt a “ Bumpus Hound” event – all part of the movie’s legacy.
Another movie-inspired festival feature will be Mrs. Shield’s Classroom with letters to Santa.
Other fun events planned for this festival include a Cookie Baking Contest; the Stardust Bowl and Strack & Van Til turkey bowling; the design-your-own Leg Lamp Shade event; the “Pink Bunny” gift exchange; South Shore kids’ art project; Home Depot’s Santa’s Workshop; horse and carriage rides and the Discover Books Reading Room.
Vendors offering food, arts and crafts, and garage sale items will also be part of the festivities.
“Downtown Hammond has so much to offer,” Maravilla says. “We are just 25 minutes from Chicago. We have beautiful parks and facilities. We have so many interesting places to shop and eat. The South Shore train station is just blocks away on Hohman Avenue.
“Hammond IS happening!” she says. “We invite everyone who thinks they know downtown Hammond to take another look. You’ll be surprised at all the things we have to offer.”