BURNS HARBOR | It is a town that has found itself "in a really interesting position," officials believe.
Burns Harbor recently completed a comprehensive planning and zoning "road map" officials hope to guide it the next 10 to 15 years. Now that the road map has been drawn up, the town should get moving.
"It's our responsibility to get pieces of the comprehensive plan implemented," Town Council Vice President Jeff Freeze said.
Burns Harbor, built in the shadows -- and essentially the support -- of Bethlehem Steel, is working to bring in light industrial businesses and connect the community while adding stores for its residents.
Progress has been slowed by the economy, Freeze said, but officials haven't stopped their work. One property, Standard Plaza, a long-vacant truck stop, was knocked down and cleaned up.
"That was certainly a major accomplishment," he said.
The town has lots that have been subdivided and are ready for construction once the economy picks up, Freeze noted. One project is under way just south of Interstate 94 at The Villages of Burns Harbor.
Called Traditions, it includes about 20 mid-level apartments, being managed by the same company in charge of the Enclave apartments in Chesterton's Sand Creek area. Phase one of Traditions is being constructed now, with phase two eyed in about 18 months.
Residents hope for a small grocery or drugstore to open in the community, along with a coffee shop, pub or local restaurant "that's not in a truck stop," Freeze said. Along with about 4,000 steelworkers who drive through Burns Harbor on their way to work at ArcelorMittal every day, Freeze thinks it is a good spot for businesses to set up shop.
"We have a lot of positives for a business looking to open," he said.
Officials want the town -- essentially divided into four quadrants by Interstate 94 and Ind. 149 -- more friendly for walking. They are looking into a pedestrian bridge over I-94 along the Ind. 149 bridge.
"It would make it easier for people to get north and south in town; that would be helpful," Freeze said.
Adding sidewalks to help residents get to Lakeland Park also is being discussed. And getting more people easier access to Burns Harbor's parks programs would benefit many residents, he said.
"For a town our size, our summer program is a great program."
ArcelorMittal, which took over the former Bethlehem Steel plant, is still the backbone of Burns Harbor. It adds up to about three-quarters of the town's property tax base. Consequently, the town wants the steel mill to be a strong company. Because of that, the town works with the company in hope of luring steel-related businesses.
"We've got the zoning in place, and we'd really like to partner up with Mittal," Freeze said.
Town leaders also need to talk about how to keep Burns Harbor strong when the steel industry goes through the low tides of the industry. Many remember vividly the Bethlehem Steel bankruptcy about a decade ago and how it hit Burns Harbor very hard.
"Those are extremely difficult (conversations) to have," Freeze said. "There are some scars on our town from that," he said. He called it a "prudent" conversation to have.
Freeze explained he'd like Burns Harbor's assessed valuation to be less reliant on ArcelorMittal, which recently reported a $1 billion loss in the fourth quarter of 2011. In a news release, the company expressed cautious confidence in the future of steelmaking.
Freeze said Whiting, which once relied on BP America for more than 80 percent of its assessed value, has lowered it to about 60 percent. Burns Harbor needs to use that as an example for what it should do as a community, he said.
The town is looking to add clean, good jobs that don't add semi traffic, and it offers plenty of mixed-use, commercial, light industrial and residential zoning, Freeze said.
"The focus on this council, bottom line ... will be how do we do some tangible things relative to the comprehensive plan, so that it's not just gathering dust," he said.
Burns Harbor is trying to break a longtime stereotype, Freeze added.
"There is more to our town than just a truck stop."