The impact on the region of BP's modernization project at its Whiting Refinery is so big, five years down the road it's hard to quantify, Whiting Mayor Joe Stahura said.
“There's no doubt it had a massive impact on the community as a whole, not only just Whiting, but the region, too,” Stahura said. “There was a whole lot of investment made by the refinery and that branched off into neighboring counties. They bought supplies. They hired people. We had workers traveling from a multi-county area plus out of state. It was an unbelievable benefit to the community and region.”
When the project began in 2008, it brought an influx of contract workers — at times more than double Whiting's population — to the refinery and surrounding communities. Rental housing became difficult to find in Whiting, and the city saw a boon in local business as the national economy tanked.
Before the project, the city's main business district on 119th Street had 10 empty storefronts. Now the number is down to two, with work in progress at both.
As construction work winds down, Whiting has positioned itself for a new challenge — how to counterbalance the impacts of the end of the $4.2 billion project.
“We hate to see the project end, but at the same time, we laid the groundwork, so people know now that they can come to Whiting and get a bite to eat.
"They know they can come down and watch a baseball game and very shortly enjoy 70 some acres of lakefront park,” Stahura said.
“We always thought we'd have to provide the catalyst to bring people here after the refinery project was done, and we've been preparing to do that for the last couple of years.”
The city made investments on 119th Street, oversaw the building of Oil City Stadium and will unveil in the coming months plans for a Stadium District, which could feature a museum, additional restaurants and a hotel on the east side of Whiting.
Reorganization efforts following the refinery's expansion likely will move more workers to the 119th Street business district, said Bob Kark, the city's director of economic development.
BP officially will open a new office building this summer at Schrage Avenue and 121st Street to eventually serve as a training center, and a new fire house is planned.
“The reconfiguration of their office buildings will be huge for us,” Stahura said. “It's shifting people from inside the plant who really can't leave for lunch or on the south side who can't leave for lunch to outside the plant near the business district, so now in half an hour they can walk and get a sandwich and a bite to eat. I think some of those dynamics will help soften the blow of the massive contractors leaving.”
Stahura said city officials are working with BP to determine incentives to encourage the company to continue to build and develop.
Tom Dabertin, president of the Whiting-Robertsdale Chamber of Commerce, said while the end of the project may impact local businesses, no significant impact is anticipated because the area has worked to market itself as a destination.
Beggars Pizza, which opened earlier this year on 119th Street, chose Whiting in part because of the closeness to industry but mainly because of the city's vision for 119th Street, business owner Jon Eder said.
“There's a consensus we're going to lose some business from (the project ending,)” Eder said. “It's not scaring us or anything.”
Dabertin said he expects the rental market will feel the most immediate impact.
However, many of the apartments along Indianapolis Boulevard and on the east side of Whiting that are expected to become vacant as the project ends are on the city's acquisition list for future development.
“For some time, we enjoyed unbelievable occupancy rates for rental properties,” Dabertin said. “On the other hand, I know many residents, including myself, won't mind the decrease in congestion from all of the traffic that's been generated, so there's always trade-offs.”